Urban Legends and E-Mail Hoaxes

Since the internet arrived, the concept of e-mail took off. Just imagine… a means of communicating with people thousands of miles away, instantaneously. They can receive a written message within seconds, as opposed to days or weeks. The modern day miracle that we call e-mail is truly an astounding thing if you think about it. Now with web-logs, personal web pages, real time chat rooms, message boards, and even sites like Associated Content… a single person can share ideas, thoughts, and opinions with a multitude of other people in just… one… small… click… of a button. It used to take weeks and months for news to travel, and generally by the time it did, it was outdated, and generally only half (if that much) correct, and half rumor.

Unfortunately this also creates an avenue for just that to happen as well… not only do we have instantaneous access to thousands of people to share thoughts and ideas… but we also have instantaneous access to thousands of people to start or spread rumors viciously, or unwittingly. And thus we come to e-mail forwards.

You know… the ones with subject lines like “Forward This E-mail and Receive a $50 Gift Certificate”, or “The Dangers of Canola Oil”. Or perhaps you’ve seen the “Please Help Me Find My Child” and maybe even the “Nine Safety Tips For Women” and the “Life Is Beautiful Virus Warning”. Whatever the motivation behind many of these sorts of e-mails, most of them are outright hoaxes and lies. Their purpose may be to just in general create mischeif or to spread fear and anxiety. One thing that is certain though, is that once they hit someone’s e-mail box who is not armed with the proper information, and simply wants to be helpful… it’s almost impossible to stop these things from cycling around the internet.

Like I said, MOST of these are outright lies and hoaxes, but that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be researched before being discarded. Especially in the case of the missing children claims. Some of these are indeed out right hoaxes, as in cases such as the “Ashley Flores”, “Penny Brown”, and “Kelsey Brooke Jones”. These children have turned out to be nothing more than figments of the e-mail author’s imagination. Some of these e-mails however, where they were once true the child has since been found. Examples of this are the Krystava Schmidt incident, who was abducted by a girlfriend of the custodial uncle in retaliation, and returned safely two days after her disappearance in 1998. Or in sadder instances where the child is found dead such as in the case of Jessica Koopman or Cecilia Zhang. In the cases where the situation has reached a conclusion for better or worse, unfortunately there is no way to stop the e-mails from circling through the internet. However in some cases these missing child reports are true and remain unresolved, as in the case of a child named Asha Degree who is still listed with the FBI and the National Center For Missing And Exploited Children. There is also the case of Shawn Hornbeck who is also still currently missing. He is also listed with the FBI and his family has established the Shawn Hornbeck Search and Rescue. One thing should be noted in these cases however that set them apart from the first ones listed… there is additional information outside of the e-mail to be found on these missing children. However there is an easier way than searching the FBI missing persons web-site. The best resource I have found for researching internet hoaxes is Snopes.

The people that run the snopes web-site are dedicated to validating these e-mail forwards that people receive, no matter what they claim, and they point out things to look for in trying to identify a hoax. One is the ability to find additional information on the subject via other resources. In the case of claims of missing children, there should be police reports filed, listings with the FBI and the National Center for Missing and Exploited children. Also calling 1-800-The-Lost, is a way to find out if these claims are true. In the cases of internet virus warnings generally sites like McAfee, Symantec (makers of Norton Anti-virus), and Microsoft will have information about the virus, how it transmits, how to avoid it, and how to remove it. The nice thing about Snopes though is they have all this information compiled in one place, convenient for access. It’s simple to plug the subject of the email into their search bar, and presto! Their site pulls the e-mail you are inquiring about, and all other ones like it.

The other thing Snopes points out is that any e-mail you receive in which they repeatedly say, “Send this to everyone you know!” should be suspect as well. That is the point of an internet hoax, and what keeps it alive, is to keep passing it on to people, who pass it on to others because they wish to be helpful, or they wish to warn their friends and family. It wastes your time, and it wastes the time of the people you send it to.

In the case of the “Nine Safety Tips For Women” e-mail, I feel it is important to address. It is always wise for anyone, men and women alike to be cautious and wary of their surroundings, but e-mails like this one tell us that we must be paranoid in order to survive. However the instances portrayed in this particular e-mail where based on true events, are a little embellished as it seems the author took great artistic license in describing them. This page on Snopes lists the true events as they occurred, and addresses the validity of the Nine tips for safety, which as listed in the e-mail are not very likely to be as effective as the e-mail claims. Simialr e-mails to this particular one in which women are lured to vans with claims of a sick baby or injured dog, or the woman who nearly escaped a crazed murdering hitch hiker dressed as an old woman are usually based on nothing more than old urban legends. When receiving e-mails of this variety, I recommend researching them, and once the information is found, if indeed the e-mail is a hoax, I tend to e-mail the person who forwarded it to me with a link to the information page, and I let them know to research such e-mails before sending them along. My friends and family very rarely send me these sort of e-mails anymore, since they have started implementing the Snopes web-site.

And Snopes has it’s fun side too. If you’ve ever wondered about those aforementioned urban legends, this site has extensive information about their origins and whether or not they are true. Say for instance, did you ever wonder if pop rocks and soda really is a deadly combination? They have the answer here.

All in all it is important to stop internet hoaxes in their tracks. In instances such as missing children alerts, the hoaxes discredit the real cases, and take the time and attention away from the real cases that people should be aware of. In others that do not have these sorts of complications, it is just as important to stop spreading fear and misinformation. Human beings should always have a level of mindfulness when it comes to their own protection, and that of their property, but no one should have to live in fear. Being armed with the right information can keep that from being the case.

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