Earlier this year, the Net Debunking Unit (NDU) received alarming news by email: "In the coming weeks, CELL-PHONE numbers are being released to telemarketing companies, and you will start to receive telesales calls." We were directed to a toll-free number for a Do Not Call list and begged to "be a good buddy and pass this on." Now we are nothing if not good buddies, but something sounded . . . phone-y.
So we checked with the Federal Trade Commission and found we were victims of an Internet hoax — one of more than 400 identified over the past few years. Like chain letters of the pre-Net era, email hoaxes start with some enticing hook ("Free money!"), move on to a terrifying assertion ("I may be wrong but . . ."), and end with a plea to "forward this to everyone you know."
Some are disguised sales pitches or attempts to get personal data. But most are either smear campaigns or pranks. "I think a lot of people who start these are lonely deviant types," says cyberhoax expert David Emery of About.com. According to the Department of Energy's Computer Incident Advisory Capability (www.ciac.org), most hoaxes fall into one of these four categories:
Fake Warnings These can be technical-sounding — the "Good Times" hoax warned of a (nonexistent) virus: If it "is not stopped, the computer's processor will be placed in an nth-complexity infinite binary loop." (There's no such thing.) Another variety aims at corporations, such as the call to boycott Starbucks for refusing to send coffee to soldiers in Iraq because execs "don't support the war." (Starbucks has no official position on the war.)
Sob Stories Typical was the tale, circulated a few years ago, of a 9-year-old girl oddly named "Faith Hoemisteine," said to be "dieing [sic] of bone cancer" (hoaxers often don't spell very well) and whose only wish was "to get into the Guinness World Book [sic] for receiving the most greeting cards."
Too-Good-to-Be-True Offers The best known of this species is a message, circulating since 1997, purporting to be from Bill Gates and thanking the recipient for "signing up for my Beta Email Tracking Application." If you forward his note to 1,000 people, "everyone on the list . . . will receive $1,000 and a copy of Windows98," a somewhat less compelling offer now than when the hoax began.
Urban Legends This category can verge on the O. Henryish — as in the well-known "Neiman Marcus Cookie" recipe story (a customer asks for the recipe and gets charged $250). Recently, emails have spread reports of monstrous "deep sea creatures" found on Phuket beaches after the tsunami.
Much like the Do Not Call message — they just don't ring true.
process check (n.) a break called by an IT guy who needs to use the bathroom
Martin Kihn is author of the new expose House of Lies: How Management Consultants Steal Your Watch and Then Tell You the Time (Warner Business Books, 2005).
A version of this article appeared in the April 2005 issue of Fast Company magazine.