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
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
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
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.