TELECOM Digest OnLine - Sorted: Top 25 Web Hoaxes and Pranks

Top 25 Web Hoaxes and Pranks

Steve Bass, PC World Communications (
Fri, 04 May 2007 16:47:58 -0500

The Top 25 Web Hoaxes and Pranks
by Steve Bass

[TELECOM Digest Editor's Note: This will be filed especially in our
archives for future reference. PAT]

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 falsifications.

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.

More details at

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 Beer.)

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, enough already.

More details at

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)

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.

[TELECOM Digest Editor's Note: And to further investigate this hoax,
MSNBC has a regular television series now 'To Catch a Con Man'
featuring our favorite Chris Hanson (of the 'To Catch a Predator
Series') which is aired more or less weekly. Mr. Hanson responds to
this scam, and then he and his camera crew travel to London to meet
the con-man personally. PAT]

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.

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.

[TELECOM Digest Editor's Note: Well, CNN did have as their major news
story one day about this 'virus'. PAT]

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.

More details at

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

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.

More information on

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 it???

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

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?

More information at

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 image-manipulation

More information at

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.

[TELECOM Digest Editor's Note: I am not positive, but this one may
have been inspired by 'Wittenburg Door' (a religious satire magazine)
which in the 1970s published a similar article claiming that IBM had
purchased the Episcopal Church (or that Episcopal Church had purchased
majority control in IBM, I am not sure which way it went. PAT]

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, 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)

Copyright 2007 PC World Communications, Inc.

[TELECOM Digest Editor's Note: These, and many more are given
elaboration in This will be filed in our
Telecom Digest Archives for future reference. PAT]

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