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The Hoax Files: The Truth Isn't Out There

E-mail Emergencies?

by Jarrett Tolman

Kurt Vonnegut@MIT

"Ladies and gentlemen of the class of '97… Wear sunscreen." Thus began Kurt Vonnegut's commencement speech to the MIT class of 1997. Or did it? Starting in June of that year, a transcript of the supposed graduation speech tore through the Internet via email. Vonnegut, however, was not the author; Mary Schmich of the Chicago Tribune was. Written as a piece of advice to her readers, Schmich's column circulated the Internet without proper credit for almost three years, fooling everyone—including Vonnegut's wife. The popularity of this hoax even led to a song performed by Baz Luhrmann, who attempted to contact Vonnegut for the rights to the speech.

Microsoft Sends You to Disney!

Your friends Bill Gates and Walt Disney, Jr. are beta testing a new email-tracking program which tracks and logs all the recipients of its mail. If it reaches 13,000 people, you could receive $5,000 cash or a free trip to Disney World. So forward it to as many people as you know — unless you consider the benefits of the beta test (a total $6.5 million in cash, plus the expense of the trips), the mere existence of one Walt Disney, Jr., or the improbability of such a program. Despite being proven false years ago, this hoax is still widely distributed on the Internet.

Dysson — A Cooperative Foundation

Denny Reikert, a member of the Dysson corporation, has a problem with his email program. He accidentally sent you a confidential email. Thus begins a series of confusing, annoying, and downright eerie emails popping up in your mailbox. Two of these emails tell of the suspicious suicide of Reikert and invite you to take his place within the organization. When it first appeared, this extremely elaborate hoax involved emailing about 40 innocent souls. Monty Python player Eric Idle was one of those behind the scenes. Read more about his version of the scam in Idle's A Mystery.

Cookies from Neiman Marcus

A kind, even-mannered mother and her daughter are having lunch at Neiman Marcus. After their salads, they decide to try the chocolate chip cookies. Blown away by the cookies' taste, one purchases the recipe for $2.50, puts it on her tab, and goes home happy. One month later, she receives her credit card bill for $285. How can this be? As it turns out, the recipe cost $250 not $2.50. Unsuccessful in requesting a refund, she decides to fight the system by sending the recipe to everyone she can, via email. Not only was this untrue, but Neiman Marcus didn't actually serve chocolate chip cookies at the time. (As part of the fallout from this hoax, they have since added chocolate chip cookies to their menu.)

Get Well, and Well, and Well...

Does anyone remember the young dying boy, Craig Shergold, whose last living wish was to make it into the book of world records by receiving the most get well cards ever? Well, this poor lad's tumor was successfully removed 1991, and he turned 25 in 2004. The cards have continued to flood in, and mail sent to that address is now automatically discarded. Because of the problems caused by this, the Guinness World Records book has shut down this category and others like it. The idea wasn't even Shergold's; the good-hearted nurses at his hospital started it. So please, for the sake of the not-so poor, sick Craig and his local post office, stop sending those cards.

The 411 on 419

If you get any spam e-mail at all—and you probably do—the odds are that you've received at least one version of the Nigerian Scam, also known as the 419 scam (after the relevant section of the Nigerian criminal code) or advance fee fraud. In its classic form, the letter is supposed to be from a former Nigerian official (or an ex-official's widow) who needs help transferring several million dollars out of the country without the government catching on. In return for the help, the victim is promised a large percentage of the money. At some point along the way, the victim is asked to pay some sort of fee to help facilitate the transfer. Further complications are then said to develop, leading to more fees, until the victim gives up or runs out of money.

This is only one version: there are hundreds of variations, some involving online lotteries, online auctions, "secret shopper" jobs, wills, and so on. They don't all originate in Nigeria; other nations (usually, but not always, African) are also common sources. Tens of millions of dollars are lost to such scammers every year in the United States alone. Nor is the damage strictly financial: there are at least two reported cases of people being killed after flying to Africa as part of a 419 scam.

For more information on this scam, see the Federal Trade Commission's warning and the 419 Coalition.






Did you know?  In Feb. 1918, over the course of just 12 hours, the temperature in Granville, N.D., rose 83 degrees, from -33°F to 50°F.

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