Please send as far and wide as possible.
Editor, The Konformist
The Top 25 Web Hoaxes and Pranks
Thu May 3, 2007
Whether they take the form of a comic image of a giant cat or a
desperate plea from a sick child, chain e-mail messages and Internet
frauds are elements of the online landscape that we've all
encountered. No topic is off limits: a medical warning, a promise of
free money, or a believably (or shoddily) Photoshopped image. But at
the end of the day, they're just elaborate hoaxes or clever pranks--
and we've collected 25 of the most infamous ones ever to have graced
the Internet or our inboxes.
Though some of these deceptions originated years ago, the originals--
and dozens of variants--continue to make the rounds. If you keep a
patient vigil over your e-mail, you too may eventually spot a
message urging you to FORWARD THIS TO EVERYONE YOU KNOW!!! And if
you haven't had enough when you finish reading this article, take a
hoax test at the Museum of Hoaxes, and then hop over to Snopes, the
premier myth-dispelling site for coverage of zillions of other
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)
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)
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
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,
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
offficer with the union bank of Nigeria plc (uba) Benin branch") who
needs your help.
It's the Nigerian con, also know 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.
Hoaxes 6 Through 10
The lower half of our top 10 ranges from a kidneynapping scare to a
cookie recipe worth its weight in saffron.
6. It's Kidney Harvesting Time (1996)
The subject line is laden with exclamation points: "Travelers
Beware!!!" If that's not enough to get your attention, the chilling
story certainly will. The message warns that an organ-harvesting
crime ring is drugging tourists in New Orleans and Las Vegas,
snatching their "extra" kidneys, selling the organs to non-
Hippocratic hospitals, and leaving the victims to wake up in a
bathtub full of ice and find a brief note that explains the
situation and conveniently identifies the phone number of the
nearest emergency room. Hey, maybe they'll get lucky and the
hospital will have a compatible replacement kidney on hand. But
travelers, fear not!!! According to the National Kidney Foundation,
this scenario has never actually occurred--though it does have the
makings of a great horror flick. (Freddy's Last Harvest, anyone?)
7. You've Got Virus! (1999 and on)
There's isn't a Teddy Bear virus. Nor is there a sulfnbk.exe or A
Virtual Card for You ("the "WORST VIRUS EVER!!!...CNN ANNOUNCED IT.
PLEASE SEND THIS TO EVERYONE YOU KNOW!!!").
The jdbgmgr.exe hoax (also known as Teddy Bear because the
jdbgmgr.exe file is represented by a teddy bear icon) warned
recipients of the e-mail message that they were at risk of infection
from a virus sent via address books or Microsoft Messenger, and that
they should delete the file immediately. But in reality there was no
virus--and unfortunately, jdbgmgr.exe was a necessary Java file. The
sulfnbk.exe hoax nailed even advanced users with its insistence that
the file--a legit one that's used for fixing long file names--was a
virus. Lots of people removed it.
Similarly, A Virtual Card for You claimed that McAfee had discovered
a virus that, when opened, would destroy the hard drive on an
infected system and would automatically send itself to everyone on
the user's e-mail contacts list. Of course, it didn't do anything
except scare people. So before you forward an e-mail virus warning
to anyone (especially to me), look it up on Sophos or Vmyths to make
sure it isn't a fraud.
8. Microsoft Buys Firefox (2006)
Talk about scaring the entire open-source community. In October
2006, a previously unknown Web site popped up, announcing
Microsoft's acquisition of Firefox and promoting the company's new
Microsoft Firefox 2007 Professional. The site talks glowingly about
the browser's new features and provides a video advertisement for
the product. It was a great prank, and the image of the Microsoft
Firefox 2007 box was so elaborate and professional looking that the
blood pressure of real Firefox users went sky-high.
9. The Really Big Kitty (2001)
There are big cats and then there are even bigger cats. This one,
reportedly tipping the scales at almost 90 pounds, was enormous. The
claim seemed plausible and even snookered a lot of e-mail cynics
(I'm raising my hand)--until they read the accompanying copy, that
is. With nonsense about the owner working at Atomic Energy of Canada
Limited, and more balderdash about nuclear reactors, the jig was up.
Eventually, the cat's owner fessed up to a creative Photoshop
session, though he claimed that he never expected anyone to believe
the photo was real.
Image courtesy of Snopes.com.
10. $250 Cookie Recipe (1996)
The woman loved the cookie she had just nibbled at a Neiman Marcus
cafe in Houston, so she asked her waiter for the recipe. "Two-
fifty," he said, and she agreed without hesitation, instructing him
to add it to her tab. But when the woman's Visa bill arrived, it
read $250, instead of $2.50. Bent on revenge, she proceeded to ask
you to blast the recipe to--okay, ready?--EVERYONE YOU KNOW!!! Like
many hoaxes, this one predated the Internet, only to resurface in
the electronic age. It appeared in a cookbook in the late 1940s as
the $25 fudge cake, popped up in the 1960s as the Waldorf-Astoria
red-velvet cake recipe, and re-emerged in the 1970s as the Mrs.
Fields cookie recipe.
Hoaxes 11 Through 15
This group of five begins with a phoney e-mail message promising
money and other prizes from Disney, and ends with the classic deaf-
to-reason arguments of the Apollo moon landing deniers.
11. Free Vacation Courtesy of Disney (1998)
Dear Goofy... Forward this e-mail chain letter to everybody under
the sun and, once 13,000 people have received it, Walt Disney Jr.
will send five grand each to 1,300 lucky people on this list.
And "the rest will recieve a free trip for two to Disney for one
week during the summer of 1999." Is that Disney World, Disneyland--
or Walt's house? The "Jr." after Disney, in reference to a
nonexistent person, ought to have been the first clue that this was
a hoax. And the misspelling of "receive" was the clincher--remember,
hoaxters, "i" before "e" except after "c"). Yet people forwarded the
message around the world using the time-honored e-mail chain letter
adage: I'm sending it to you... just in case it's true.
12. Sunset Over Africa (2003)
Now that's a dazzling photo of Africa and Europe, taken right around
sunset from the Space Shuttle Columbia. What makes the image
especially amazing is that, while London remains in daylight, night
has fallen in Italy (a little to the southeast) and the bright
lights of Rome, Naples, and Venice are blazing. Too bad it's a
digitally altered photo, most likely layered from multiple satellite
images. To see an accurate, computer-generated illustration, check
out the World Sunlight Map.
Image courtesy of Snopes.com.
13. Alien Autopsy at Roswell, New Mexico (1995)
Roswell, New Mexico: ground zero of UFO controversy. It's also where
the movie of the Roswell alien autopsy was filmed 60 years ago. The
story goes that a UFO crashed at this site, and the U.S. government
performed a hush-hush autopsy on the dead alien.In the mid-1990s,
unnamed individuals "discovered" the secret film and posted it for
the edification of a disinformed public. Looks pretty real, right?
Now fast-forward to 2006 and a conspiracy-deflating admission: The
movie is a hoax created in 1995 by John Humphreys, the animator
famous for Max Headroom, in his apartment in north London....Or was
14. Real-Time GPS Cell Phone Tracking (2007)
SunSat Satellite Solutions knows where you are.Have you heard about
the Web site that can track the location of your cell phone in real
time? It uses satellite GPS in combination with Google Maps, and
it's amazingly accurate (not to mention a disturbing invasion of
privacy). Go ahead, check it out yourself by going to the SunSat
Satellite Solutions site and tracking your own cell phone's
location. Select your country, type in your cell phone number, click
the Start Searching button, and wait for it. (This is one of the
year's best pranks. And I won't give away the ending.)
15. Apollo Moon Landing Hoax (1969)
You're aware that we never landed on the moon, right? It was all
just an elaborate hoax designed to score Cold War points for the
United States against the Soviet Union in a world of falling
dominoes. The whole lunar landing thing? It was a video staged at
movie studios and top-secret locations.
Okay, you can stop laughing now, but some sites, such as Apollo
Reality and Moon Landing, still insist that the Eagle never landed.
Of course, enemies of Flat Earthism will point to the Rocket and
Space Technology site, which does an in-depth job of debunking the
hoax. But true disbelievers should check out this terrific video
spoof, complete with outtakes showing lights and cameras.
Hoaxes 16 Through 20
The world of weird eBay auction items starts off this page, which
concludes with a photo hoax purporting to show a 1950s-era vision of
the home computer of tomorrow.
16. Sell It on eBay! (1995)
You won't believe what people have sold on eBay--some of the items
pranks, some of them for real, and some, well, it's hard to tell.
For a sampling of the weird, you need look no further than a haunted
tree stump and a pork chop shaped like a grizzly bear. The Internet
itself once went on the market at a modest starting bid of a million
bucks, as have a dozen spontaneous images of the Virgin Mary (on
toast, on windows, and heaven only knows where else). Bidders have
also had a shot at someone's soul, a guy's virginity, and a human
kidney, with the price of this last item having reached $5.7 million
before eBay pulled the plug. (Hey, guys, don't you know that what
you lose in Las Vegas is supposed to stay in Las Vegas?)
But my favorite eBay offering involves a tattooed guy who, as a
joke, dressed up in his ex-wife's size 12 wedding gown and put it up
for auction. Only, the dress ended up selling for $3850, and the guy
got five marriage proposals. Nice.
17. Chinese Newspaper Duped (2002)
Information on the Internet may want to be free--but if it's posted
by a for-profit publisher, you'd better take it with a grain of
salt. That's the lesson learned by China's Beijing Evening News,
which was taken in by the Onion's Capitol Dome spoof. Famous for its
authentic-sounding but tongue-in-cheek articles steeped in the
language of the Associated Press, the Onion reported that Congress
had threatened to leave Washington, D.C., and head for Memphis
unless the District agreed to erect a new domed Capitol building
with a retractable roof and luxury box seating. Having accepted most
of the Onion article at face value, the Chinese newspaper at first
stood by its source in the face of international derision and
refused to back down. When it finally published a retraction, it
blamed the Onion for the confusion: "Some small American newspapers
frequently fabricate offbeat news to trick people into noticing them
with the aim of making money." Right.
18. The Muppets Have Not Already Won (2001)
Osama and Bert: a Sesame Street connection to terrorism?In early
October 2001, just prior to the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan,
protesters at an anti-American rally in Bangladesh showed their
support for Osama bin Laden by marching, chanting, and waving
placards. One of the posters captured on film by Reuters News Agency
was a photo-montage of the Al-Qaeda leader, and in one of the shots
a yellow felt puppet to his right glowers furiously at the camera.
It's...Bert of Sesame Street. Originally a Zelig-inspired creation
of San Francisco Webmaster Dino Ignacio, the satirical Web site Bert
Is Evil depicted Bert hobnobbing with the worst of the worst in
history, tormenting his roommate Ernie, and generally reveling in
wickedness. After Ignacio retired from active efforts to expose
Bert's career of evil, others filled the Photoshop void, capturing
the cone-headed miscreant with all the latest baddies-du-jour.
Evidently, the company responsible for printing the pro-Osama poster
found the doctored dual portrait irresistible, although (according
to the Urban Legends References Pages) its production manager claims
to have produced about 2000 copies of the Osama-and-Bert poster
without realizing "what they signified." Well, if you can't trust
pictures you find on the Internet, what can you trust?
Image courtesy of Snopes.com.
19. Chevrolet's Not-So-Better Idea (2006)
The ad folks at Chevrolet thought they had a winner: Let site
visitors create their own 30-second commercial for the company's
2007 Chevy Tahoe SUV. It'll be fun, they probably thought. We'll
give them a choice of video clips and soundtracks, and let them add
their own text captions. Yep, viral marketing at its best.
Unfortunately for Chevrolet, a few pranksters decided to use the
opportunity to express what they thought of the SUV. One commercial
said, "Like this snowy wilderness? Better get your fill of it now.
Then say hello to global warming." Another lambasted the SUV as a
gas guzzler: "Our planet's oil is almost gone. You don't need G.P.S.
to see where this road leads."
20. Rand's 1954 Home Computer (2004)
This intriguing image of a room-size computer made the rounds of the
Internet, accompanied by a breathless blurb: "This article is from
an issue of 1954 'Popular Mechanics' magazine forecasting the
possibility of 'home computers' in 50 years." The steering wheel in
the picture is the predecessor to today's mouse, and the keyboard
looks like those on teletype machines. It even comes complete with a
guy right out of the Eisenhower era.
Cool stuff, and easy to believe--but it's not a 1950s Rand
Corporation mockup of what a prototype home computer might look
like. It's actually a shot taken of a submarine display at the
Smithsonian Institution and subsequently modified for inclusion in a
Fark.com image-manipulation competition.
Image courtesy of Snopes.com.
Hoaxes 21 Through 25
Our final five takes you from the ultimate instance of Microsoft
hubris to an ill-conceived experiment in Internet democracy (or is
that Internet anarchy?).
21. Microsoft Buys Catholic Church (1994)
More than a decade ago, an e-mail press release--from Vatican City,
no less--landed in my inbox. Microsoft was announcing that it was in
the process of acquiring the Roman Catholic Church in exchange for
an unspecified number of shares of Microsoft common stock. The story
was a prank, but it sure looked real, circulating for months and
perhaps worrying residents of the Holy See.
Just think: If the press release had been true, it might have
stopped the Vatican from using Linux. And no, I'm not kidding about
the Linux part. Watch this video interview with the woman who helped
build the Vatican's Web site.
22. Hercules, the Enormous Dog (2007)
Wow, that dog's almost as big as the horse. That's what I thought
when I first looked at this e-mail. The picture depicts a couple,
one walking a horse, the other holding the leash of Hercules, a 282-
pound English Mastiff and "The World's Biggest Dog Ever According to
Guinness World Records."
Horsepucky. Here's my analysis of the Photoshop modifications.
First, take a close look at the grass under the people and the
animals. The area has been subtly lightened in order to make all of
the shadows match and look authentic. Next, examine the shadows and
you'll notice two anomalies: First, the shadows of the dog and the
man start at their feet, but the same doesn't hold true for the
horse. Second, the woman's shadow is missing altogether; instead,
the man's shadow extends in front of her. Oh and by the way, the
Guinness World Records site doesn't have a listing for Hercules or
for the world's biggest dog. Okay, okay, so the pictures of the big
kitty and the big dog are both fakes--but have you seen the shot of
Craig Sherwood riding the world's largest jackelope?
23. Lights-Out Gang Member Initiation (1998)
People have a tendency to believe e-mail messages that come from
authority figures. In 1998, a message purportedly from a police
officer working with the DARE program circulated around the
Internet. It warned recipients not to flash their lights to inform
oncoming cars that their headlamps were off. According to the
message, a recently devised gang initiation ritual involved having
new gang members drive at night with their headlights turned off
until an oncoming car flashed its lights at them; then, in order to
become initiated, they were to shoot everyone in that car. It's just
another urban myth--and about as silly as the one claiming that
gangs mark off their territory by hanging sneakers from power lines.
24. Hurricane Lili Waterspouts (2002)
It's weird, it's disturbing, and it's seemingly plausible--all of
the elements necessary for a successful e-mail forward. The image
shows three dark waterspouts in the distance. The subject is "here
comes lili," and the e-mail began appearing in inboxes at about the
same time that Hurricane Lili started battering the Louisiana
coastline. But three waterspouts, all neatly lined up? According to
About.com, the National Weather Service labeled the picture a hoax
and said that it was a modification of a genuine photo taken in 2001
by a crew member of the Edison Chouest Offshore supply boat.
25. Pranks Shut Down Los Angeles Times Wiki (2005)
It seemed like a bright idea. The LA Times' "A Wiki for Your
Thoughts" fandango asked readers to chime in on the newspaper's
editorials via a Wiki. In their explanation of how it would work,
the editors even acknowledged that "It sounds nutty." Yet they went
ahead with it--and achieved disastrous results. The Wikitorial (the
name was nearly as dumb as the scheme) brought out the best and then
the worst in readers. On the first day, an editorial about the war
in Iraq prompted civil and thoughtful contributions. On day two,
pranksters littered the unmoderated Wiki with rude comments,
pornography, and profanity. The Webmaster removed the offending
entries, but only after they were available for public viewing. By
the next morning, the publisher had dismantled the Wiki.
Hoaxes by Decade
E-mail, Web sites, Photoshop. The digital era has made it easier
than ever to pull a fast one on a large audience.
Pre-1990 Apollo Moon Landing Hoax (1969) Sick Kid Needs Your Help
(1989)1990-1999 Microsoft Buys Catholic Church (1994) Alien Autopsy
at Roswell (1995) eBay Sales (1995 and on) $250 Cookie Recipe (1996)
Kidney Harvesting (1996) Bill Gates Money Giveaway (1997) Disney Jr.
Free Vacation (1998) Lights-Out Gang Member Initiation (1998) Five-
Cent E-Mail Tax (1999) Virus Hoaxes (1999 and on)2000 and on
Nigerian 419 E-Mail Scam (2000) Giant Cat Photo (2001) World Trade
Center Photo (2001) Bert and Osama bin Laden (2001) Hurricane Lili
Waterspouts (2002) Onion Dupes Chinese Newspaper (2002) Sunset Over
Africa (2003) Rand's 1954 Home Computer (2004) Los Angeles Times
Wiki (2005) User-Created Commercials for Chevy Tahoe (2006)
Microsoft Buys Firefox (2006) GPS Cell Phone Tracking (2007)
Hercules, the Enormous Dog (2007)