Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Urban Legends (Feb. 2003)

I’m lucky. I hardly ever get spam, the email equivalent of junk mail, clogging up my mailbox. But what I do get, on a regular basis, are emails people forward me with stuff I just don’t want to read.

Sometimes they’re messages warning that my computer’s been infected with the Teddy Bear virus, or urging me to avoid antiperspirant or heating cups of water in the microwave. Others promise free goodies, like a $50 coupon for dinner at Applebees or new Nikes just for forwarding the message to “everyone I know.” Some want me to forward a picture of a lost little girl, or help a dying boy collect the world’s largest number of emails. A few have tried to get me to add my name to chain letter, or an email petition to save public radio or allow prayer in schools. And then there’s the jokes – don’t get me started on those!

Even if every one of these emails, written by people I’ve never met and forwarded to me by well-meaning friends, relatives and acquaintances, were filled with absolutely vital information, I still wouldn’t want to read them. I prefer to get my news from sources I know, which is why I’ve always used mainstream media outlets --TV, newspaper and radio websites -- as my home page. For the past few years I’ve used Google News because , which carries stories from thousands of newspapers and TV stations around the world. I can check the headlines several times a day just by going online.

But the fact is, almost every forwarded email I’ve ever gotten is either inaccurate, an outright hoax, or an Urban Legend. How do I know? Whenever I get one of these things, I check it with the experts: David Emery’s Urban Legends and Folklore section on and the Urban Legends Reference Pages run by Barbara and David Mikkelson at

Long before the Web existed, I discovered the Urban Legend phenomena in some great books by folklore specialist Jan Harold Brunvand. ULs are easy to spot, once you know the signs: they’re neat little stories about a celebrity or a friend of a friend (FOAF, in ULese) that have some kind of a twist, usually with a moral, at the end. According to Brunvand, some of these whoppers, like The Vanishing Hitchhiker, a “ghost story” you may have heard as a kid, trace their ancestry back to the Dark Ages. But now that we’re in the Digital Age, tales that once took years to circle the globe now take mere days via email. and Snopes are the best of the UL and hoax websites because they keep track of the latest emails to make the rounds AND they check with the people or companies involved to find out what the real story is, with links to online newspaper articles or official statements where you can see for yourself. Both have archives where you can look up that old classic that may have landed in your mailbox years after it started. Other UL sites exist, but many of them aim more for humor than verification. (One entire site is dedicated to variations on the famous email scam from Nigeria which asks strangers to help sneak money out of the country in exchange for a “reward.”)

You can also do your own sleuthing. The email I got promising a free meal at Applebees included a bogus “link” to the company’s website. I went to the real website and found a pop-up box which described the email as a hoax. Any new, legitimate virus alerts are sure to show up on the Microsoft website or any reputable high-tech news source. Norton, the anti-virus software, also lists hoaxes. For the government’s take on health-related stories, go to the Centers for Disease Control website .

So what about that caution about anti-perspirant causing breast cancer? Ignore it. The kidnapping? Never happened. That dying kid? He got better years ago, and the continuing flood of emails have caused the charity’s website to crash more than once. And the Teddy Bear virus? It works by convincing YOU to delete a perfectly normal Windows file.

As for those chain letters and petitions -- who’s really collecting your name and address, and what for? And those jokes … well, let’s just say people have different ideas of what’s funny.

Please – think twice before forwarding an email to everyone you know. Chances are good everyone doesn’t really want it.

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