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The Xenophile Historian

K. U. P.

(Kimball's Unauthorized Perversion)

Urban Legends, Hoaxes, and Chain Letters

This page deals with what I get in my e-mail. By staying away from USENET, I manage to avoid most of the pornographers, right-wing and left-wing extremists, conspiracy theorists, spammers, and people without lives, but from time to time they find my inbox anyway. Sometimes I find their webpages, too. In cyberspace, you only need a well-designed webpage to make a crazy idea look believable, and it doesn't cost a lot to produce a good-looking page. Thus, I breathe a sigh of relief whenever I visit a kook's homepage and it doesn't look as good as mine.

P. T. Barnum would have loved the Internet, where all kinds of wild rumors and stories can travel around the world in a day, and people continue to fall for them, no matter what skeptics might say. The easiest way to recognize such e-mail scams are messages full of hyperbole and exclamation marks, made-up experts, and no contact information. For me the last one is a giveaway; if a commercial site left no phone number, e-mail address or "snail mail" address to contact the owner with, how would the site make any money? Here are some of the most persistent hoaxes and "urban legends" circulating around the Web, and my comments on them:

1. Madalyn Murray O'Hair's atheist organization is trying to get all religious programming, including shows like "Touched by an Angel," banned from television. Ms. O'Hair died in 1995, so if this story is true, we now have proof that there is life after death.

2. A tourist woke up in an ice-filled bathtub of his hotel room and learned that his kidneys had been stolen. Try to find a doctor crooked enough to do such an operation. Even in Russia, where the mob now rules much of the country, it won't be easy.

3. The $250 Nieman-Marcus cookie recipe. I hope this one is true; at least the cookies are yummy.

4. Watch out; somebody is putting HIV-infected needles in gas pump handles! Full-service gas pumps are not at all common around here, so I'd have trouble complying with this one. I know how my wife would avoid it, though: "Real women don't pump gas."

5. Bill Gates will give $5,000 and a trip to Walt Disney World if you forward this e-mail. I think even the chairman of Microsoft would have trouble paying everyone who did this, and how's he going to keep track on where the e-mails go, anyway? The same goes for any e-mail that promises a $50 gift certificate to your favorite store if you forward it; the store's owner couldn't track it if he/she wanted to.

6. A terminally ill child wants this e-mail sent to at least 50 million people before she dies. I first heard of this one in February 1999, so the kid is probably dead by now--if she ever existed at all.
The latest version of this are the pictures of hideously disfigured babies posted on Facebook, along with a message saying that if you "like" or share the picture, the baby in the picture will receive prayers, money, or a lifesaving operation. There are two problems with this. First, Facebook doesn't work that way, any more than Microsoft does (see the previous hoax). Second, some of these pictures have been circulating on Facebook since 2012. Therefore it's a safe bet that the child has recovered from the injury or illness by now -- or the child is dead. Either way, he/she doesn't need the operation anymore, and if you want to say a prayer, a kaddish will be the most appropriate one.

7. If you overpay your traffic tickets, the computer handling payments won't put points on your driving record. I recently heard an ex-cop deny this on the radio; you're probably better off saving your money for something else.

8. Flash your lights at a car driving with its lights off, and you could be shot at. It's part of a gang initiation. Yeah, and if you ignore a car driving with its lights off, I suppose that would make the roads safer.

9. The US Postal Service is appalled at how much business it has lost to e-mail. Therefore, Congress is considering a bill (B602P), that would place a 5 cent charge on every e-mail delivered. I wish; then the spammers wouldn't bother me so much (see below). This one requires some research to debunk; even Hillary Clinton and Rick Lazio fell for it, when asked what they thought of the bill during a debate for the 2000 New York Senate campaign (to their credit, both candidates said they opposed the bill). First of all, bills in Congress DO NOT start with the letter "B"; bills in the House of Representatives begin with an "H", while Senate bills are marked with an "S". Second, the congressman/lawyer mentioned, who is supposedly working to keep the bill from becoming a law, doesn't exist either. Is that clear, everyone?

10. The Great American Gas Out! Don't buy gas this weekend, and gas prices will drop dramatically. I tried this one in April 2000, and gas prices went up instead. My dumb luck . . .

11. Nostradamus predicted the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001. No, that overhyped psychic from the sixteenth century didn't really do that. The quatrain (4-line verse) of his on the e-mail circuit is not real; it is a doctored version. The original said nothing about two giants or towers, and predicted that something would be seen in the sky in mid-1999. Anybody know what that was about? For a more detailed explanation of the hoax, read this page from Now whatever happened to the prediction from Nostradamus that Nepal would invade Peru in 1999?

12. "My son/daughter is missing. Please forward this message to everyone in your address book. Wouldn't you do the same if it was your child?" Yes, but there are other things I would try first, like calling the police. If these missing children reports are real, I hope the parents did the same. Using e-mail to find somebody is extremely hit-and-miss; the message could go to your online friend in South Africa, for example, while no one in your neighborhood sees it. Call it a high-tech version of the old "message in a bottle" deal. The other problem is that these announcements have no expiration date, so the original sender's e-mail address may no longer be valid. In one case, the child in question was found playing at a neighbor's house right after the e-mail was sent out, but that message is still roaming in cyberspace.

13. "I have custody of $28 million that belonged to the late Nigerian dictator, Sani Abacha, and need to get it out of the country. Let me put it in your account until I can find a safe place to keep it, and 25% of it will be yours." This is the so-called Nigerian Bank Scam. Never give your bank account number (or your credit card number, for that matter) to a complete stranger. This is not secure e-commerce, and if you do, it's safe to say that money will flow out of your account, not in. Apparently some folks have fallen for it, because I have gotten several versions of this letter; others claimed to be from people in Sierra Leone, Angola, and even Afghanistan. Even more offensive are the letters I'm getting now, which claim to be looking for the heir of an A. Kimball or John Kimball, who died in a plane crash or auto accident in Nigeria (How did they get my last name?). One thing's for sure; I'm never going to visit Nigeria if relatives of mine are getting killed there! Check out the 419 Coalition Website for more information on this scam.
The best response I've seen to these letters came from a guy in Denmark, who strung out the scammer for days with a series of questions, each more outrageous than the last. I wish I had the patience to pull a prank like that. If you think you would like to try baiting the scammers, visit for tips and examples.

14. "Someone is sending out a very desirable screen-saver of the Budweiser Frogs. But if you download it, you will lose everything..." In case you didn't notice, Budweiser doesn't use frogs in their advertisements anymore (they've even dropped Frank and Louie, the underdog lizards). Hey, I haven't seen this screen saver since 1997, and it didn't contain a virus then, so why would anyone spread rumors about it now? I know viruses are a serious problem, but increasing the number of false warnings is not going to do any good. These days whenever I get a virus warning, I check with an expert on the subject, like a company that produces antivirus software (McAfee, Symantec, etc.); almost every time it turns out to be a groundless rumor. Please don't be like the boy who cried "Wolf!", and immunize us against warnings about real viruses. For a humorous look at such letters, see the "Trojan Horse Warning" in Chapter 2.

15. This one comes from someone claiming to work for Hotmail: "All you have to do is forward this on to at least 10 registered Hotmail users or you will have your Hotmail account closed down." Yeah, right, and with all the spam they let go through their servers, they're going to choke e-mail service even more with a chain letter? I don't think so.

16. And then there are all those official-looking claims that you won an overseas lottery or sweepstakes, and you need to contact the sender before an upcoming deadline. This falls more in the category of spam, but let me say here that even on the Internet, you get nothing for nothing! It's as simple as this:

It's a similar story with those pyramid/ponzi schemes that promise large amounts of money if you put money in, like $5,000 for a $25 contribution. Those are also illegal, and take my word for it--in the long run, even the pharaohs got scammed by the original pyramid scheme!

And now for a few words about chain letters. The mailman doesn't bring me the old-fashioned kind anymore, presumably because they have been replaced by their e-mail equivalents. Don't write them, and don't forward them. Chain letters are illegal, immoral and fattening (for the inbox). They waste time, system resources, and money, for both the user and the ISP owner. And it's not hard to imagine how they can clog up an e-mail server. Suppose you sent a chain letter to ten people, each of them sent it to ten people, and so on. The second time it is forwarded, one hundred would get it, one thousand would get it on the third forwarding, and after nine or ten forwardings it would go to every e-mail address on earth!

E-mail petitions aren't the way to change things, either. I've gotten a few of these; one talks about the plight of women in Afghanistan, and #9 above is another. A request to forward a petition to everyone in your address book doesn't mean that it will ever reach somebody who can do something about the problem, and no one in a position of authority has to respond to an e-mail petition, no matter how many names are on it. If you get such a petition, check and see if it has an address to send it to when all the signatures are collected. And even if it's legitimate, you're more likely to get a positive response if you contact your congressman by phone or letter instead.

If I haven't yet convinced you to break the chain, consider this: whenever you forward an e-mail, your e-mail address appears in the message header, along with the addresses of those who forwarded the letter before you got it. Let that message fall in the hands of a spammer, and he's got a new list of people to bug. Ever wonder why you are getting so much e-mail advertising stuff you have no use for? Chain letters are one way to make it happen.

Nowadays I make it a point not to forward any e-mail that tells me to send it to everyone I know, even if I agree with the message. Send me a chain letter, and I promise you it will stop here. Besides, chain letters tell me that whoever forwards them is gullible. I trust you want me to think better of you than that.

Here are some online sources to help you identify and debunk these hoaxes when you see them:

Finally, if a message begins with "This is not a hoax or urban legend," it probably is one. To summarize all this: "Don't believe anything you read on the Internet or hear on my radio show (or any other show, for that matter) unless you can confirm it with another source, and/or it is consistent with what you already know to be true. Yes, that does include information obtained from this site."--Neal Boortz (a talk show host)

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© Copyright 2016 Charles Kimball

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