The Top 25 Web Hoaxes and Pranks

Hoaxes 1 Through 5

From the supposed last photo taken at the top of the World Trade Center to the endlessly revised request for assistance from a Nigerian functionary, here are our top five Web and e-mail hoaxes.

1. The Accidental Tourist (2001)

Wrong plane, wrong tower, nice posture.
Quite possibly the most famous hoax picture ever, this gruesome idea of a joke traveled around the Web and made a grand tour of e-mail inboxes everywhere soon after the tragedy of September 11. It depicts a tourist standing on the observation deck of one of the World Trade Center towers, unknowingly posing for a picture as an American Airlines plane approaches in the background.

At first glance it appears to be real, but if you examine certain details, you'll see that it's a craftily modified image. For starters, the plane that struck the WTC was a wide-body Boeing 767; the one in the picture is a smaller 757. The approach of the plane in the picture is from the north, yet the building it would have hit--the North tower--didn't have an outdoor observation deck. Furthermore, the South tower's outdoor deck didn't open until 9:30 a.m. on weekdays, more than half an hour after the first plane struck the WTC. The picture is a hoax, through and through--and not a particularly amusing one, under the circumstances.

Image courtesy of Snopes.com.

2. Sick Kid Needs Your Help (1989)

Proof that "Craig Sherwood" wasn't simply a creation of Hallmark's marketing department.
This gem had its roots in reality. It all began in 1989, when nine-year-old cancer patient
Craig Shergold thought of a way to achieve his dream of getting into the Guinness Book of World Records. Craig asked people to send greeting cards, and boy, did they. By 1991, 33 million greeting cards had been sent, far surpassing the prior record. Ironically, however, the Guinness World Records site doesn't contain any mention of Craig Sherwood or a "most greeting cards received" record, presumably because the fine folks at the site don't want to encourage anyone to try to break his mark. (Astonishingly, Guinness doesn't have an entry for world's stoutest person, either, but it does honor the World's Largest Tankard of Beer.)

Fortunately, doctors succeeded in removing the tumor, and Craig is now a healthy adult, but his appeal for cards has turned into the hoax that won't die. Variations on the theme include a sick girl dying of cancer, and a little boy with leukemia whose dying wish is to start an eternal chain letter. A recent iteration tells a tragic tale of a girl who supposedly was horribly burned in a fire at WalMart, and then claims that AOL will pay all of her medical bills if only if you forward this e-mail to EVERYONE YOU KNOW!!! Okay, enough already.

Image courtesy of Snopes.com.

3. Bill Gates Money Giveaway (1997)

No, it's true. I thought it was a scam, but it happened to a buddy of mine. It seems that Microsoft is testing some new program for tracing e-mail, and the company needs volunteers to help try the thing out. He forwarded me an e-mail that he received from Microsoft--and get this, from Bill Gates himself! Two weeks later, as a reward for participating, my pal received a check for thousands of dollars! Sure he did. Another version of this hoax claims that AOL's tracking service is offering a cash reward. Tell you what--when you get your check, send me 10 percent as a finder's fee, okay?

4. Five-Cent E-Mail Tax (1999)

"Dear Internet Subscriber," the e-mail starts. "The Government of the United States is quietly pushing through legislation that will affect your use of the Internet." It goes on to reveal that "Bill 602P" will authorize the U.S. Postal Service to assess a charge of five cents for every e-mail sent. Not a bad way to cut down on the number of dopey e-mail chain letters and lame jokes people let loose on the world. But credulous curse averters and connoisseurs of boffo laffs can relax: This e-mail alert, which popped up in 1999 and comes back for a visit every year or so, just isn't true. Still, it sounded plausible enough to fool Hillary Clinton during a 2000 debate when she was running for the Senate.

5. Nigerian 419 E-Mail Scam (2000)

"DEAR SIR," the e-mail starts. "FIRSTLY I MUST FIRST SOLICIT YOUR CONFIDENCE IN THIS TRANSACTION; LET ME START BY INTRODUCING MYSELF PROPERLY..." I'm sure you've received one of these--a confidential, urgent e-mail message promising you a reward of mucho dinero for helping this person convey money abroad. All you need do in return is entrust your name and bank account number to the government bureaucrat (or his uncle, aunt, or cousin, the ostensible "credit officer with the union bank of Nigeria plc (uba) Benin branch") who needs your help.

It's the Nigerian con, also known as an Advanced Fee Fraud or 419 scam (so called because of the section number of the Nigerian criminal code that applies to it). Ancestors of these scams appeared in the 1980s, when the media of choice were letters or faxes--and they're still wildly successful at snagging people. In fact, Oprah recently featured a victim of the Nigerian scam on her show. And if you think that smart, educated folks couldn't possibly fall for it, you'll be surprised when you read " The Perfect Mark," a New Yorker magazine article profiling a Massachusetts psychotherapist who was duped--and lost a fortune.

To see how the hoax works, visit Scamorama, a fascinating site that features a progression of e-mail messages stringing along 419 scammers, sometimes for months at a time. Finally, check out the 3rd Annual Nigerian E-Mail Conference, an absolutely perfect spoof.

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