Thursday 26 February 2009

Beware of hoaxes

Not all hoaxes involve direct attempts to profit from fraud (such as medical fraud scams). Many are hoaxes on the order of large scale practical jokes, urban myths and popular misconceptions that are spread by ignorant, as well as, malicious people.

A hoax is a deliberate attempt to dupe, deceive or trick people into believing, or accepting, that something is real, when in fact it is not; or that something is true, when in fact it is false. A hoax is often perpetrated as a practical joke, to cause embarrassment, or to provoke social change by making people aware of something.

A classic example of a hoax took place on October 30, 1938 when actor, Orsen Welles produced a radio show called the ‘War of the Worlds’. It was based on the fictional novel of the same title previously written by H.G. Wells. When it was played over the radio as if it was a newscast; thousands of people on the east coast of the United States panicked because Martians were attacking a city in New Jersey. Bus terminals were crowded with people wanting to flee westward. Many years later in the 1970s, a similar ‘show’ was broadcasted on TV. In that scenario, terrorists blew up an American city. I knew from the beginning that it was only a movie rather than a newscast because I read about the pending show forehand but my wife (who I kept in the dark about what was really being shown on the TV that night) thought it was for real. In 1953 while I served on a warship in the Canadian Navy, I began spreading a rumor that our ship was going on a four-month cruise around South America. It was a hoax of course. Within a day, all 800 crew members were talking of nothing else but the pending trip. As fate would have it, several months later we actually did go on a four-month cruise around South America. The only person who was surprised was me. Everyone else knew we were going on the trip. They had heard the scuttlebutt months earlier.

One of the most incredible hoaxes ever brought about took place in Manhattan more than a hundred years ago. Two men made a public announcement that the city fathers had decided to sever New York City from the mainland and that hundreds of contractors would be needed to do the job. On the day that the work was to start, hundreds of contractors show up for the job. I love the hoax that took place in the US when hundreds of people showed up in an empty field waiting for a plane to drop cabbage dolls on the field for the suckers to pick up. Needless to say, no plane flew over the field.

There’s a sucker born every hour and they, sooner or later, become the victims of some hoax. Now quite frankly, I can’t find fault with someone who creates a hoax in which it is all in fun and no money passes on to the hoaxer. The most common of these are those that take place on April Fool's Day, which is open season for pranks and dubious announcements. I am however concerned about those scammers that use their hoaxes to steal money from unsuspecting suckers who in desperation; believe in the authenticity of the hoax.

Bernard Madoff was probably the worst scammer in the world. His hoax was a deliberate scam in which he stole as much a $50 billion dollars from many thousands of unsuspecting victims who chose to invest their money with his firm. His scam was that old ‘Ponzi Scam’ in which the scammer pays off the initial investors with the money invested by the new investors. It is no different than the ‘Pyramid Scam’. Both scams are illegal.

I remember that old hoax in which we would receive a letter telling us that we had to send ten copies of the letter to our friends and that if we didn’t, we may fall victim to some unfortunate accident during our lives. People who received such letters would, out of fear, send the letters and the hoax would spread exponentially.

Then there are the hoaxes that are spread with malice aforethought.

When I was a child living in a small town in British Columbia in the 1940s, I remember a kid telling the parents of a neighboring kid that their son had just been killed falling off of a cliff. It was a lie and it created real havoc on the family that received that message. It is against the law in Canada to do such a thing and it is punishable by imprisonment.

There are many internet hoaxes going around the world. For example, there was the Merry Christmas hoax. It said;

“If you receive a mail called "Merry Christmas", though sent by a friend, do not open it and shut down your computer immediately. This is the worst virus announced; it has been classified by Microsoft as the most destructive virus ever. This virus was discovered by McAfee yesterday, and there is no repair yet for this kind of virus. This virus simply destroys the Zero Sector of the Hard Disc, where your vital information is kept.”

That hoax prevented thousands of people from opening their email messages that began with Merry Christmas. As it turned out, there was no such virus.

Hear is another internet hoax that spread around the globe. It said;

“You should be alert during the next days: Do not open any message with an attached filed called "Invitation" regardless of who sent it. It is a virus that opens an Olympic Torch which burns the whole hard disc C of your computer. This virus will be received from someone who has your e-mail address in his/her contact list. That is why you should send this e-mail to all your contacts. It is better to receive this message 25 times than to receive the virus and open it. If you receive a mail called "invitation", though sent by a friend; do not open it. Shut down your computer immediately. This is the worst virus announced by CNN. It has been classified by Microsoft as the most destructive virus ever. This virus was discovered by McAfee yesterday, and there is no repair yet for this kind of virus.”

There was no such virus.

The kinds of people who send this kind of garbage through the internet are pranksters and they do this to cause aggravation and concern to those who use the internet.

Here are some hoaxes that were created to scare people.

Spiders under the toilet seat...Three women died after eating at the same restaurant, Family Eatery. The ‘South American Blush Spider’ found under the rim of the restaurant's toilet seat is blamed for their deaths. This same venomous spider has also been discovered in airplane toilets.

There is no such spider and the restaurant mentioned in the e-mail did not exist.

Don't drink from the can...A woman who drank from a Coke can was infected with dried rat urine and then she died a few days later from Leptospirosis.

Rat urine is not toxic, unless the rat is diseased. Leptospirosis can be spread to humans from a diseased rat, but the most common way is by eating or drinking contaminated food or water. Soda cans, once manufactured, are packaged in cardboard boxes almost immediately, and then they are shipped out uncontaminated.

Then there are the sympathy hoaxes. They play upon the sympathy of people, and they are making their way around the world. Here is an example;

“Little Jessica Mydek is seven years old and is suffering from an acute and very rare case of cerebral carcinoma. This condition causes severe malignant brain tumors and is a terminal illness. The doctors have given her six months to live. As part of her dying wish, she wanted to start a chain letter to inform people of this condition and to send people the message to live life to the fullest and enjoy every moment, a chance that she will never have. Furthermore, the American Cancer Society and several corporate sponsors have agreed to donate three cents toward continuing cancer research for every new person that gets forwarded this message. Please give Jessica and all cancer victims a chance. If there are any questions, send them to the American Cancer Society at”

The American Cancer Society needed this kind of rubbish like they needed a hole in the head. This kind of internet message is no different than the old chain letter nonsense.

Of course, we who are connected with the internet are familiar with the Nigerian Letter scams and as such, we recognize that what these scammers really want is our money. Here is one I received not too long ago.

Dear Sir,
Confidential Business Proposal
Having consulted with my colleagues and based on the information gathered from the Nigerian Chambers Of Commerce and Industry, I have the privilege to request your assistance to transfer the sum of $47,500,000.00 (forty seven million, five hundred thousand United States dollars) into your bank account. The above sum resulted from an over-invoiced contract, executed, commissioned and paid for about five years (5) ago by a foreign contractor. This action was however intentional and since then the fund has been in a suspense account at The Central Bank Of Nigeria Apex Bank.

We are now ready to transfer the fund overseas and that is where you come in. It is important to inform you that as civil servants, we are forbidden to operate a foreign account; that is why we require your assistance. The total sum will be shared as follows: 70% for us, 25% for you and 5% for local and international expenses incidental to the transfer.The transfer is risk free on both sides. I am an accountant with the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC). If you find this proposal acceptable, we shall require the following documents:

(a) your banker's name, telephone, account and fax numbers.
(b) your private telephone and fax numbers —for confidentiality and easy communication.
(c) your letter-headed paper stamped and signed.

Alternatively we will furnish you with the text of what to type into your letter-headed paper, along with a breakdown explaining, comprehensively what we require of you. The business will take us thirty (30) working days to accomplish.

Please reply urgently.

Best regards
Howgul Abul Arhu

Now the gullible (and they do exist) will look at this message as a godsend. They believe that they are going to get as much as $11,500,000 US dollars for simply sending these scammers the three pieces of information they asked for. Alas, life isn’t that simple. I am forced to ask this rhetorical question; “Didn’t their mommies tell them that if it looks too good to be true, it ain’t true?”

First of all, once these scammers have that information, they can steal money from their victim’s bank account. They can also use the victim’s letterhead for all kinds of nefarious purposes. And of course, once they have their victim's signature, well, what can I say that you don’t already know?

Often these Nigerian Letter scammers (and not all of them originate in Nigeria) will tell their victims that they need money from them to pay the taxes etc and the victim sends them the money still thinking of the big free gift that they are getting from Nigeria.

I used to send a nasty reply to these scammers by pressing the reply button on my computer but every time I sent my reply, a message came back stating that the email address didn’t exist. It was as phony as the message sent to me.

There are hundreds of health stories that demand closer scrutiny: Who hasn't heard of the grapefruit diet, or believed that eating cabbage soup for a week is a healthy way to lose 10 pounds. Every day I get emails about ‘miracle cures’ for everything from arthritis to cancer. On the surface, these scams look like legitimate ‘alternative medicine’ treatments and often have the endorsement of someone calling himself a doctor and who claims that his special treatment is overlooked by conventional doctors because they're in cahoots with big-Pharma. Sadly, these scams extract great sums of money from people desperate to cure their cancers or end their pain.

Most vitamin pushers suggest that everyone is in danger of deficiency and should therefore take supplements as ‘insurance’ against bad health. Some suggest that it is difficult to get what you need from food, while others claim that it is impossible. Their pitch resembles that of the door-to-door huckster who states that your perfectly good furnace is in danger of blowing up unless you replace it with his product. Vitamin pushers will never tell you who doesn't need their products. Their ‘be wary of deficiency’ claims may not be limited to essential nutrients. It can also include nonessential chemicals that nobody needs to worry about because the body makes its own supply.

Here are some tips to help you spot an urban legend, a hoax or a scam.

1. Note whether the text was actually written by the person who sent it to you. If not, be skeptical.
2. Look for the telltale phrase, 'Forward this to everyone you know.'
3. Look for statements like 'This is NOT a hoax' or 'This is NOT an urban legend.' They usually mean the opposite of what they say.
4. Watch out for overly emphatic language, the frequent use of UPPERCASE LETTERS and multiple exclamation points!!!!!!!
5. If the message seems geared more to persuade than to inform, be suspicious. Like propagandists, hoaxers are more interested in pushing people's emotional buttons than communicating facts.
6. If the message purports to give you extremely important information that you've never heard of before or seen elsewhere in legitimate venues, be suspicious.
7. Read carefully and think critically about what the message says, looking for logical inconsistencies, violations of common sense and obviously false claims.
8. Look for subtle or not-so-subtle jokes, indications that the author is pulling your leg.
9. Check for references to outside sources. Hoaxes will not typically name any, nor link to web sites with corroborating information.
10. Check to see if the message has been debunked by web sites that cover Internet hoaxes.
11. Consider the form of the information passed along to you. Is it a story with a beginning, middle and end? Does it have a 'punch line' similar to a joke? If so, it may be an urban legend.
12. Email versions of urban legends tend to lose some of their story-like qualities, circulating in the form of warnings or alerts, for example, rather than personal anecdotes.

I hope that my readers have learned about hoaxes by reading this message. Of course, not everything that you read is a hoax. For example, I own a bridge in New York. It is a very popular bridge. It is used every day by thousands of commuters who travel from Manhattan to Brooklyn. I can let you have it fairly cheap as I have all the money I need. Think about it. If you charge a fee to every commuter who crosses the bridge, you will make a fortune. You can also keep the name of the bridge. It is called, the Brooklyn Bridge. Now you know how to get in touch with me and when you do, I will send you the particulars as to where to send me the ten million dollars. And don’t worry about raising the money. Once your bank realizes what you want the money for, they will gladly lend you the money. I will however need from you, a small initial deposit of $20,000 as a sign of good faith. When I receive it, I will send you the documents you need to get your loan.

How’s that for a deal? Remember what your mommy told you. "If it is too good to be true......"

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