A look at some of those persistent hoax emails that you receive almost every day.
by Brian Dunning
Filed under Urban Legends
July 25, 2007
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By Brian Dunning, Skeptoid Podcast
Episode 57, July 25, 2007
You'll never believe what I got in my email this morning. Apparently Microsoft is going to send me $1 for every person I forward this email to! I didn't believe it at first, but then I learned that USA Today featured two whole pages about it. I'll get to it soon — but first little Jimmy with cancer is trying to set a world record for emailed Get Well wishes before he dies, so I've got to take care of him first. I'll just email my encouraging message to the address he provides, email@example.com. I'll do it as soon as I've finished reading Robin Williams' poignant essay on patriotism.
Now, of course, the bastard granddaddy of email myths is the con known as the Nigerian 419 fraud, named after the section in the Nigerian criminal codes that it violates, which is superfluous because Nigeria has never prosecuted a single person for it. Nigerian 419 fraud has been Nigeria's second largest industry, after oil, since the 1980's. This is where you get a politely addressed email from a stranger, often a spouse, family member, or personal attorney of some African leader who has died, full of apologies for bothering you, stating that you seem like a trustworthy person, and for some generous piece of the action you can help them transfer some outrageously huge 8-figure sum out of the country. Of course it's just a con to get your advance fee payments. You may remember the woman who murdered her minister husband not too long ago, in part because she was afraid he'd find out how much money she had lost to this scam.
But most fraudulent emails are harmless hoaxes, or in many cases, accidental mistaken attributions. One of the favorite victims of these emailed essays is comedian George Carlin. If you use email at all, you've almost certainly received one or more essays attributed to George Carlin. One is called Hurricane Rules, a rant against the people of New Orleans, that's halfway decently funny. There's another one variously titled the Bad American or the Bad Republican which is completely random and pointless. There's a transcript of Bill Maher's New Rules from various episodes of his TV show which somehow got compiled and attributed as George Carlin's New Rules for 2006. There's a sappy social critique called Paradox of Our Time. There's a piece called The Stupid Sign suggesting that stupid people should be required to wear a sign identifying them as such. But these are just a sampling; the list goes on and on. In short, virtually every random essay commenting on some aspect of American society is eventually attributed to George Carlin, and this doesn't piss off anyone as much as it does George himself. George finally had to take matters into his own hands and put up a big disclaimer on his web site:
Because most of this stuff is really lame, it's embarrassing to see my name on it.
And that's the problem. I want people to know that I take care with my writing, and try to keep my standards high. But most of this "humor" on the Internet is just plain stupid. I guess hard-core fans who follow my stuff closely would be able to spot the fake stuff, because the tone of voice is so different. But a casual fan has no way of knowing, and it bothers me that some people might believe I'd actually be capable of writing some of this stuff.
Here's a rule of thumb, folks: Nothing you see on the Internet is mine unless it came from one of my albums, books, HBO shows, or appeared on my website.
There's a hardline conservative email essay called Robin Williams' Peace Plan, in which he advises getting rid of the UN, shipping all our illegal aliens to France, deporting foreign students, increasing domestic oil production, and ending foreign aid in a 10-point plan. If Robin Williams, who lives in San Francisco, were to write a peace plan, it would probably look nothing like this one, and it would probably be funny as hell. What seems to have happened in this case is that someone appended a real joke from Robin Williams as point #11, with his attribution, and from then on as the piece was forwarded around it looked like his name at the bottom was for the whole thing. This same mistaken attribution has happened to other people as well. Don't believe attributions on emails.
There is another popular hoax email that promises some reward, like a gift card or even cash, if you simply forward the email to a large number of people to assist with some experiment or test of some email tracking system. No such system exists. Today there is no practical way for anyone to determine whether you forward an email, whether anyone views it, or how many times "around the world" it has gone. Even if Bill Gates wanted to give everyone $1 for each email they forward, current technology prevents him from having any way to know who to pay or how much.
Hoax emails will often say something like "This was featured on 60 Minutes this week" or "This had 2 whole pages in USA Today devoted to it." These are simply lies. I know you've seen that in emails you've received, and I know you've never gone to those sources to verify the claim. The people who send these know that nobody's going to verify anything so they make whatever ridiculous claims they want. "This email has gone around the world 3 times" — what does that even mean, and was that appended to the letter before it was sent or by some mid-level recipient? How was it determined? And who added all those testimonials, and when were they added? Did you add one? Did the person who sent it to you add one? Or is it possible that whoever started it wrote it all and is still laughing?
With all those emails flying around the world out there, the government better get in on the action and grab a piece of it. There have been perennial emails for 20 years now warning that the US Postal Service is going to charge a 5¢ fee on every email, or that Congress is trying to pass bill 602P to tax email delivery. This hoax has happened in the US, Canada, Australia, and probably other countries too. There's no truth to any of it, and the names, law firms, and bill numbers in the original emails were completely fictitious. No US government body has ever pondered such a thing. But the rumors fly so much that even Hillary Clinton was famously fooled by it, and spoke out against the non-existent bill on live television during the 2000 Senate race.
So back to the sick little child who hopes that you'll forward their email to set a record. Other versions of this groundless hoax claim that the American Cancer Society will donate a dime for every person you forward the email to. "All forwarded emails are tracked to obtain the total count." As we know it's not possible for all forwarded emails to be tracked. There are many, many variations on this theme where some company or celebrity promises to donate money for some sick child based on the number of emails forwarded, when in fact there is no possible way for such a count to be derived. You've probably seen a version of this email that starts with a touching little poem called Slow Dance written by a terminally ill little girl, advising us to slow down and smell the roses. That was the theme of the poem, but in fact it wasn't written by a little girl, it was written by a perfectly healthy psychologist who had dealt with such children. The name of the little girl in the email is a fictitious one. It's a touching poem misused in a stupid hoax.
As long as we're talking about stupid or harmless hoaxes, be aware that there are even stupider harmful hoaxes. One that's particularly messed up is a legitimate email about a real missing child, including her picture, and all the real information about the case. Sounds like a great use of email, right? Well, it would be. But in some cases, people change the contact information or phone numbers so that in the event the email is received by someone who may actually have helpful information to pass along, they end up calling some premium rate telephone number that has nothing to do with the missing child hotline, and end up surprised by a fat charge on their telephone bill. The lesson to be learned from this is to always be skeptical of contact information in emails asking for help. If you actually have some helpful information, call your local police department to be sure your information goes to the right place.
And of course there are stupid hoax emails promising extraordinary events, like Mars appearing as large as the full moon in the sky. This one's been going around forever and still makes an appearance every year. "It will look like the Earth has two moons," the email promises. The original basis for this was an event in 2003 where the Earth and Mars actually did make a very close pass, and Mars actually did look as large as the full moon — so long as you were looking through a 75× telescope. The current iteration of the email typically leaves out that little detail. Remember: When you read a promise that sounds too good to be true, or that seems to violate the laws of the universe, you have very good reason to be skeptical.
How about that other email that just won't die: the warning that your cell phone number is about to be released to telemarketers unless you sign up for a cell phone Do Not Call registry. The Federal Trade Commission has talked themselves blue in the face trying to advise everyone that this is a hoax and it's simply untrue. Telemarketers are barred from calling your cell phone without your consent. There is only one Do Not Call registry, it's found at DoNotCall.gov, and although you are welcome to put your cell phone number into it, there is generally no reason to do so.
I'll leave you with one final email myth, one you may have heard about recently. It's a proposal for consumers to take charge and actually reverse our high gasoline prices. This chain email, which purports to have originated from an economist or Fortune 500 financial executive, suggests that everyone boycott gas stations owned by the two largest oil companies, Exxon and Mobil (actually Exxon and Mobil are the same company now, the two biggest are really ExxonMobil and Royal Dutch Shell). This boycott will force the largest companies to drop their prices more and more, finally forcing the little guys to drop their own prices to compete. In this manner, consumers can actually wield final control over industry prices. Sounds great, doesn't it? Everyone likes to hear that the big corporations can be bullied around by a guy on the street. Well, you're welcome to give this a shot, if you think it will do anything. Oil companies don't own the gas stations. They're franchises, owned by your neighbor down the street, your local small businessperson. Boycotting his station is only going to put your neighborhood buddy out of business. The competing gas stations, who are now getting all the business, will have to meet the new demand and will simply buy their gasoline from the boycotted producer's refinery. Oil companies do this all the time. It's a commodity, and it's sold on the commodities market, and they constantly buy from one another to meet changing demand. This boycott strategy, according to at least one real economist who has analyzed it, will have no effect on the big oil companies. Its effect will only be to injure the small independent station owner, and to actually raise prices at the busy gas stations who are struggling to meet the demand. Remember, simple chain emails are very unlikely to be the solution to problems that economists and professional analysts have been wrestling with for decades. When you see an unrealistic promise that seems too good to be true, be skeptical.
The take-home from all of this is that you should read every chain email with a grain of salt. Very few of them are true. Virtually all of them making heartwarming promises are false. There are plenty of perfectly good jokes and videos for people to send around that are well worth all of my spare email reading time, that I don't need any of the promises from Bill Gates or warnings that the solar system is about to be dissolved in a nebula. Email petitions are worthless. Emailed promises or claims are rarely worth the electrons they're printed on. Help cleanse the Internet of useless noise. Don't forward chain emails.
© 2007 Skeptoid Media, Inc.
References & Further Reading
Anonymous. "'Hurricane Rules' by George Carlin." Urban Legends. About.com, 4 Sep. 2005. Web. 25 Jul. 2007. <http://urbanlegends.about.com/library/bl_hurricane_rules.htm>
ICFNL. "Part 6 : Offences Relating to property and contracts." Division 1 : Stealing and Like offences. International Centre for Nigerian Law, 24 Mar. 2007. Web. 24 Jul. 2007. <http://www.nigeria-law.org/Criminal%20Code%20Act-Part%20VI%20%20to%20the%20end.htm>
Mayhew, Anne. Narrating the Rise of Big Business in the USA: How Economists Explain Standard Oil and Wal-Mart. New York: Routledge, 2008. 208.
The Silver Lake Editors. Scams & Swindles: Phishing, Spoofing, ID Theft, Nigerian Advance Schemes Investment Frauds: How to Recognize And Avoid Rip-Offs In The Internet Age. Aberdeen, WA: Silver Lake Publishing, 2006. 276.
Wall, David S. Cybercrime: The Transformation of Crime in the Information Age. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2007. 288.
Reference this article:
Dunning, B. "Email Myths." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, Inc., 25 Jul 2007. Web. 27 Jan 2015. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4057>