In Honor of Being Duped: Our Ten Favorite E-Mail Hoaxes and Scams

One of the best Internet hoaxes of all time.
One of the best Internet hoaxes of all time.

Last week, we inadvertently got taken by a Facebook post stating a collection of DVDs at Texas Children's Hospital had been stolen. Turns out, it never happened. Oops.

Sometimes, even the best of us get suckered by hoaxes of all kinds. There is a reason Al Gore someone invented Snopes. It's not just for relatives who think that Swiffer kills dogs or soda is used to clean engine parts. The whole episode got us to thinking about some of our favorite hoaxes perpetrated on unsuspecting web surfers, the best of which came via e-mail -- the best way to fake out a grandparent before Facebook arrived. Here are our favorites.

10. You Won a Cruise!

This was in the earlier days of the Internet when people were a little more trusting and clearly thought e-mail was completely different from phone scams, which had using this old chestnut for years. Like most scams, this was about money, duping many unwitting victims into handing over their credit cards.

9. Kidney Theft in New Orleans

This is a great example of urban legend gone digital. As the story went, someone on vacation woke up in a tub full of ice with a note next to them saying, "Thanks for the kidney" after apparently having one of their organs removed by a surgical thief. We always thought it was nice of them to go to all the trouble of keeping them alive. In the Internet version, travelers were warned that going to NOLA might leave them short a kidney -- the hoax sometimes mentioned Las Vegas as another potential danger spot, which somehow seems realistic if you watch a lot of CSI.

8. Help a Sick Child

Over the years, the idea of raising money to help someone in need has been a popular approach for grifters. The e-mail version of this popular scam, however, wasn't so much about money as it was about perpetuating an actual story. In 1989, nine-year-old Craig Shergold, in an attempt to win a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records, asked people to send him birthday cards. He got more than 30 million! Even when he got healthy, the cards kept coming driven at least in part by the continued e-mails. Other variations on that theme were generated, but nothing close to the original.

7. Going Phishing

Whenever a bank or credit card sends you an e-mail saying it needs you to click a link and put in your login information -- in case you don't know -- do NOT do it. This is what geeks refer to as a "phishing" scam. A fake website is set up to look like the real thing. Once you click the link to the site and enter your info, you just gave crooks access to your cash.

6. Flash Your Lights, Get Shot

The legend described how gangs were using a new initiation rite with young members where they would drive with their lights out. The prospective member was required to kill everyone in the first car that flashed their lights at them. This was, thankfully, not true, but scared the crap out suburban moms everywhere.


In Honor of Being Duped: Our Ten Favorite E-Mail Hoaxes and Scams

5. Bill Gates Wants to Give You Money

Ah, the chain letter. Before the advent of electronic mail, superstitious types would find themselves buying rolls of stamps to send out copies of chain letters that promised wealth on follow through or suffering or even death if you threw it in the mail. Fortunately, e-mail is a lot cheaper than snail mail, but it doesn't make the chain mail concept any more true. The most creative chain e-mail of all time is one in which recipients were promised cash from Microsoft founder Bill Gates upon forwarding. Not surprisingly, a lot of people were disappointed when no cash arrived.

4. Five-Cent E-Mail Tax

The reason e-mail is winning the battle of messaging over snail mail is because it's free (and easy and cleaner...and you get it), but one e-mail claimed that the postal service, in order to keep from going out of business, was looking at creating a five-cent tax on e-mails. As you might imagine, people freaked out. Despite how ridiculous it sounded to geeks, lots of people were outraged. It was so pervasive, a question about its legitimacy even made it into a debate between then New York senatorial candidates Hillary Rodham Clinton and Rick Lazio.

3. Microsoft Buys the Catholic Church

In 1994, it was Microsoft, not Apple, that ruled the world, so much so that a fake press release supposedly sent out by the Associated Press stating that the software giant was considering purchasing the Catholic Church for an exchange of stock began making the rounds. Hard to believe anyone bought it, but PT Barnum had this saying...

2. $250 Nieman Marcus Cookie Recipe

Neiman Marcus cookies are good, but $250 good? The story was a woman asked for the recipe to the famous cookie at a Nieman Marcus in Dallas to which the waitress told her she could buy it for "two fifty." She took it to mean $2.50, but the charge to her credit card came back $250. As punishment for the store's refusal to refund her money, she decided to e-mail the recipe to everyone. Of course, this wasn't true. NM didn't even have a cookie recipe at the time this emerged -- they do now, one they give away. This apparently is very similar to a snail mail hoax dating back to the '40s.

1. Nigerian Prince

It's startling to imagine how many people sent money to Nigeria when prompted by an e-mail saying they would turn a major profit if they did. What was that PT Barnum quote again?

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