Eight Crazy E-Mail Hoaxes Millions Have Fallen For

Artwork: Chip Taylor
Congratulations, you won the lottery in a country whose name you can't even pronounce! A wealthy oil executive in a far-off land wants to give you millions of dollars, right now! Sexy girls want to meet you!

Now let's be honest. If someone came to your door and told you any of those things, you'd tell him to get lost. So why do people still fall for this stuff when it's in their e-mail, as if a poorly written message made a weird-sounding pitch any more legitimate?

The saddest part is, the only reason annoying e-mail keeps filing your inbox is because it works. No matter the number of reports detailing e-mail hoaxes gone bad and tales of spammers taking people for all they're worth, people just keep on clicking.

Why? It's the law of percentages. The response rate for snail-mail spam is between 0.5 and 1 percent. That might not sound like a lot, but if you apply it to e-mail, it means a spammer can send 1 million messages--without the cost of paper and postage--and 5000 to 10,000 people will answer. In fact, a study out this month indicates that nearly 30 percent of Internet users confessed to purchasing something from spam e-mail.

In 100 years, the spam boxes on our brain-implant chips will be maxed out, and we'll still be asking: Who's clicking on this stuff?

Here's PC World's list, in no particular order, of the top e-mail hoaxes that have come through inboxes and fooled millions.

Raise Bonsai Kittens in Bottles

Kittens in bottles?
Graphic: omegagrafix.com
It's amazing how many people were willing to believe this e-mail about a breeder in New York who raised kittens in bottles. Perhaps it's the horrible detail that outraged the recipients so much: The small animals are given a muscle relaxant to pacify them and to allow the breeder to get them in the bottle. They're fed through straws. Their skeletons take on the shape of the bottle. "Latest trends In New York, China, Indonesia and New Zealand." A bizarre case of animal cruelty? A sick joke?

Actually, it started as a fake Web site, Bonsai Kitten, the product of MIT students. The idea was so outrageous, it spread like wildfire via e-mail. Plenty of people fell for it, many begging animal-welfare organizations to help the small furry creatures. Even the FBI investigated. Perhaps it could happen--after all, you can miniaturize a tree by pruning it and shaping it. But cats? Last time we checked, it's more or less impossible (not to mention probably illegal) to stop an animal from growing simply by keeping it in a small container.

Sign a Petition to Ban Dihydrogen Monoxide

Dihydrogen monoxide
Artwork: Chip Taylor
E-mail alerts outlining the dangers of dihydrogen monoxide swept the Internet in the late 1990s and still pop up today. Many ask that you sign and forward a petition to ban the chemical, which contributes to global warming, is a major ingredient in acid rain, causes metals to rust more quickly, and has been found in cancerous tumors. The chemical also contributes to the greenhouse effect and to erosion of our natural landscapes. It's even in food. Sounds pretty dangerous. You're ready to sign right now, aren't you?

Well, let us tell you one more thing about dihydrogen monoxide: It's more commonly known as water. You know, the substance that every single living being relies on to survive? The origins of this item are multifold, from flyers circulated at the University of California at Santa Cruz in 1989 (so 20th century!) to a junior high school student who surveyed 50 classmates in 1997 and got 43 of them to sign his petition to ban the chemical. He then won a prize at his science fair for his project, called "How Gullible Are We?" Several Web pages touting the chemical's dangers are still live. Don't feel too bad if you've ever fallen victim to this hoax; even a government official in New Zealand took the bait last year.

Extreme Technophobia: Pop Popcorn With Cell Phones

Pop popcorn with a cell phone
Artwork: Chip Taylor
With all the talk of cell phone dangers, the idea of radiation from them being powerful enough to pop popcorn doesn't seem that far-fetched, at least on the surface. Why, just this summer the Pittsburgh Cancer Institute advised its employees to limit exposure to electromagnetic radiation from cell phones. So why wouldn't you believe the swarm of e-mail telling you to look at the incredible video of friends popping kernels of corn with their mobile phones?

The group allegedly did it by placing the kernels inside a ring of cell phones that then rang at the same time. The result: The kernels popped wildly as the cell phone owners shrieked in delight. It must be true--it was on the Internet, and the video was fun to watch. The event set off a wave of imitators attempting to film themselves re-creating it or trying to disprove it. The best of these, in our opinion, was the video where the people replaced their cell phones with Barack Obama dolls and the popcorn popped anyhow. Watch out, Senator McCain!

Unfortunately, as you might expect, it was all fake. A company called Cardo Systems made the video to promote its cell phone headsets. Abraham Glezerman, Cardo's CEO, told CNN that the phones were real and the popping popcorn was real, but the video was a composite, with the footage of the popcorn heated over a kitchen stove digitally dropped into the video of the folks with their phones. Dang. Guess the e-mail about cell phones that can cook eggs isn't accurate either.

Bill Gates Wants to Give You Money

Bill Gates's bucks
Artwork: Chip Taylor
This summer an editor at PC World received a note from a relative asking if the e-mail she had received that told her Bill Gates wanted to send her $1000 was real. Uh, no...

Although Gates is being very generous with his fortune now that he has retired from day-to-day work with Microsoft, you can get some of it only by applying to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. But long before the foundation was created, back in the early days of the Internet, e-mail discussing Gates's or Microsoft's willingness to fork over free cash was widely circulated--and clearly, it's still forwarded today. Snopes.com has a list of the urban legends circulating most widely and, despite the fact that Gates and Microsoft have been the subject of phony e-mail alerts and hoaxes since the 1990s, they are still in the top 25 this month.

One version says that Microsoft wants to make sure Internet Explorer remains the dominant browser (which we're sure is true). All you need to do to help out and get money from Microsoft is to forward an e-mail to your friends. Microsoft will track the e-mail for two weeks, and you get paid for every person who receives the e-mail through you. Among the attractive details is a list of differing amounts that will come to you depending on how many referrals you make--one version of the scam says the sender received a check for $24,800 from Microsoft. Not chump change!

Hold on a second. First, if tracking an e-mail like that were even possible, the Electronic Frontier Foundation would be all over that faster than you can say "invasion of privacy." Oh, and did we mention that the technology to do such a thing probably doesn't exist? Of course, since you read PC World, you know that already. But if Microsoft ever really wanted to pay us just for forwarding an e-mail, we're game.

Launch a Nuclear Strike From Your PC

Nukes from your PC
Artwork: Chip Taylor
In 2002, Symantec supposedly issued an advisory about certain e-mail messages flying around the country about an "important virus to look out for." The antivirus-software maker, which does issue warnings on real viruses, allegedly instructed Internet users not to open any e-mail with the subject line "LAUNCH NUCLEAR STRIKE NOW." If you did open that e-mail, you would inadvertently end up sending nuclear warheads winging their way toward the former Soviet Union. That's right, you could start your very own nuclear war while in your slippers and bathrobe.

The deal was that opening the e-mail would download a virus that would tell your PC to access NORAD computers in Colorado and instruct them to launch a full-scale attack on Russia and former U.S.S.R. states. Okay, maybe Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice may be thinking that way right now over the current crisis in Georgia, but let's leave that to the professionals, shall we?

Needless to say, the virus isn't real, Symantec didn't issue such a caution, and it should be painfully obvious that this one is a hoax. If that isn't clear to you, step away from your PC and don't ever touch it again.

Hello, My Name is Mr. Paul Agabi, a Lawyer in Nigeria--Can You Help Me?

Let us guess: At one time or another, you've received an e-mail from an earnest resident of Nigeria that starts with a hello and an introduction to the sender. The e-mail then suggests that your help is needed to claim an abandoned sum of money in a foreign account, or something similar. The message typically promises that you will receive a large amount of money if you simply send a smaller amount of money now.

You didn't fall for it, did you? These convincing missives, which may or may not be from Nigeria, are known as 419 scams (named after a section of the Nigerian criminal code that deals with fraud). Wikipedia says most of them are advance-fee frauds or confidence tricks. Not only will you not get rich, but you'll also have a very hard time getting back any money you wire the sender up front. We're sorry to report that these types of scams, which are based on versions dating back to the early 1900s, are still popular--variants purporting to be from Russia, Spain, Nigeria, and many other countries still pour in to e-mail accounts around the world.

As a U.S. Postal Inspector once told us when we talked to him about U.S. mail fraud, "If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is."

'Video: Watch Angelina Jolie's Lips Explode!'

Angelina?
Photograph: Rachel Ashe/Wikimedia
Here at PC World, we've warned and warned readers, but still people click on dangerous and fake attachments that purport to be interesting photos or videos but actually turn out to be damaging viruses or Trojan horses. An early star of such e-mail scams was Madonna. Paris Hilton certainly had her day, as did Lindsay Lohan. Poor Britney Spears is still holding strong in this category. But we have to say that in 2008, the uncontested star of creepy download offers appears to be Angelina Jolie.

Just today in our spam-overflow folders, we found the above-mentioned subject line discussing Ms. Jolie's lips, as well as "Britney Spears and Brad Pitt Naked Video" (does Angelina know?), "Jolly Jolie Sex Scene," and--with extra points for having both ladies in the same e-mail--"Angelina Jolie and Britney Spears lesbian sex tape."

Speaking of jollies, you'll get a lot more than that after nasty viruses trash your PC. (You know deep in your heart, don't you, that the invitation to click on racy photos/videos just opens nasty executable files for malware?) You won't be so jolly when you get the bill to rehab your computer.

Work Virus

Work Virus
Artwork: Chip Taylor
Though an obvious joke, the Work Virus hoax reported last year by antivirus company Symantec will likely bring a smile to any cube dweller's face. An excerpt from the e-mail tells the story: "There is a new virus going around called 'work.' If you receive any sort of 'work' at all, whether via e-mail, Internet, or simply handed to you by a colleague...DO NOT OPEN IT. This has been circulating around our building for months, and those who have been tempted to open 'work' or even look at 'work' have found that their social life is deleted and their brain ceases to function properly."

Pure genius. We'll have to send this one to our boss.

How to Spot a Hoax E-Mail

Several resources can tell you whether an e-mail claim you're interested in is a hoax. One is Hoax-Busters.org, which describes itself as the Big List of Internet Hoaxes; another is Snopes.com, which specializes in urban legends and hoaxes, and a third is Hoax-Slayer.com. Check out any of these sites before you forward that next petition, chain letter, or crazy photo.

Hoax-Busters also has a list of the "5 Telltale Signs of an Internet Hoax" that might useful.

  • The e-mail will have a sense of urgency about it, and probably a lot of exclamation points in it.
  • The e-mail will insist that you tell all your friends.
  • The text is adamant that this is "NOT a hoax."
  • It will earnestly inform you that there are dire consequences for not participating.
  • It probably is full of >>>> marks, showing that it has fooled a lot of people before you, and has been forwarded all over the planet. Don't add any more! If you must forward something, try this: The Federal Communications Commission's list of the Top 10 Spam Scams.

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