Urban legends, those false stories that sound just plausible enough to be true, have been around from time immemorial. The spread of the Internet has only made such legends more widely available to the general public, and it has also provided fertile ground for the development of new urban legends and hoaxes. Several legends have been especially popular in recent years, and it is easy to find out details about them on the Internet.
INTERNET CLEANUP DAY
Internet Cleanup Day was a popular urban legend that circulated on the Internet via spam emails for quite some time. Basically, this legend said that the Internet must be shut off once a year for twenty-four hours to allow programmers everywhere to get rid of useless emails, links, etc. People were to shut off their computer or server connection on a particular day to facilitate this cleaning. Those who evaluate this legend note that there would be not Internet to clean if all computers worldwide were disconnected from one another.
• Internet Hoaxes — In addition to Internet Cleanup Day, this site lists many other popular Internet hoaxes and legends.
First circulated in 1999, this urban legend alleged that bananas affected with “necrotizing fasciitis” or flesh-eating bacteria were making their way from Costa Rica with potential deadly affects on human beings who consumed them. Despite the fact that necrotizing fasciitis is a real bacteria, this legend was completely false.
• Going Bananas — This site has information on the legend of the flesh-eating bananas.
KENTUCKY FRIED CHICKEN HOAX
Some people have been fooled into believing that instead of chicken, Kentucky Fried Chicken is frying up genetically modified animals of a different sort. This legend is demonstrably false and has in fact been shown to be a legend several times over. Still, once a legend starts it is hard to stop it.
• Kentucky Fried Hoax — The University of New Hampshire explains the signs of falsehood in the Kentucky Fried Chicken hoax.
INTERNET ACCESS CHARGE
As one of the most popular Internet hoaxes during the early days of universal Internet access, the Internet access charge hoax was one of the most widely believed rumors in the 1990s. E-mails asserted for several years that the Federal Communications Commission was just weeks away from imposing a per-minute charge to go online. No such charge was ever considered or acted upon.
• Hoax Du Jour: Internet Access Charge — Here is one user’s report on the widespread hoax of the Internet access charge.
E-MAIL TAX (602P)
Despite the perpetrators’ best efforts to make an e-mail warning about an upcoming e-mail tax look official, this idea that the U.S. Congress has ever considered passing a bill to tax e-mail communications is plainly false. Aside from the fact that 602P is not the proper designation for any U.S. legislation under consideration, there are many other faults with the e-mail that prove it is a hoax, as Internet sleuths have conclusively proven.
• E-Mail Tax Hoax — This site has a copy of the e-mail tax hoax e-mail and explains why it is a falsehood.
Prior to 2001, one of the most prevalent e-mail hoaxes warned people about the dreaded Klingerman virus that was supposedly passed through a gift delivered to people marked with the phrase “a gift from the Klingerman foundation.” The hysteria was so great that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control had to put up a webpage proving there was no such virus, and reminding people that you should contact the post office if you receive a suspicious package.
• CDC Klingerman Virus — The Centers for Disease Control developed this page to answer the Klingerman virus hoax.
Another popular hoax during the decade of the 1990s was an e-mail warning people not to take drinks from strangers in certain cities in the U.S. and around the world. The hoax said the drink was laced with drugs and would knock out the person and make him or her wake up hours later only to find that their kidneys had been stolen and sold for a profit on the black market. Some believe the root of this hoax was a soap opera story line.
• United Network for Organ Sharing: Kidney Hoax — The United Network for Organ Sharing explains comprehensively the nature of the kidney theft hoax.
NEEDLES ON THEATER SEATS
In 2004, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control was asked to respond to the rumor that HIV-infected needles were being found in movie theater seats, on gas pumps, and elsewhere. It was even reported that the CDC had confirmed these rumors, but as the CDC explained, no such rumors were credible.
• UAB Health System: Needle Hoax — Here is a report on the HIV-infected needle hoax that has taken a variety of forms.
POISONED ENVELOPES AT THE AUTOTELLER
Because so many people use ATM machines to make deposits, a warning about dangers related to such ATMs would certainly be taken seriously. Some e-mails have alleged that there have been people putting poison on the lickable portion of ATM deposit envelopes and that some have died after licking them. No such danger has ever been reported to the authorities.
• Snopes on ATM Envelopes — Snopes.com, a noted myth-busting website, proves that poisoned ATM envelopes do not exist.
ANTIPERSPIRANTS AND BREAST CANCER
Even some news outlets have claimed a link between antiperspirant use and breast cancer in women. While this might sound plausible, no scientific study has ever conclusively uncovered a link between the disease and cancer.
• Are Antiperspirants and Breast Cancer Linked? — Here is a factsheet from the National Cancer Institute on the link between antiperspirants and breast cancer.
SHAMPOO CAUSES CANCER
Even Gwyneth Paltrow has fallen for the claim that non-organic shampoo can cause cancer in those who use it. There is no real reason to believe this idea as it is based on many scientific myths. Non-organic shampoos are just as safe as their organic counterparts.
• Daily Mail: Does Sunscreen Cause Cancer — On this page the UK Daily Mail newspaper assesses the claim that shampoo cancer.
SUNSCREEN CAUSES BLINDNESS
We trust sunscreen to help prevent skin cancer, but does it cause other problems such as blindness if it gets in the eyes? This was the precise claim of an e-mail hoax that asserted waterproof sunscreen could cause blindness if it got into contact with the eyes. But as with the other hoaxes we have listed, no such threat exists.
• Personal Care Council: Shampoo and Blindness — An official UK agency debunks the rumor that shampoo causes blindness on this page.
One e-mail that has circulated over the years warns about Paget’s disease of the breast, an extremely rare form of breast cancer. There is actually much truth in this e-mail, for Paget’s disease is a real form of cancer, but an e-mail may not be the best way to warn people about it.
• Paget's Disease of the Breast — On this page, the American Cancer Society assesses the Paget’s disease e-mail and gives information about the illness.
LETHAL RAT URINE
Very few of us actually like rats, so it is not too difficult to believe a claim that accidentally ingesting their waste products could be unhealthy, if not lethal. One widely circulated e-mail claimed that you should always wash the top of aluminum cans of soda as they sit in warehouses and may be susceptible to being coated with rat waste. Though rats can carry disease, no reported case exists of a person being accidentally poisoned by rat urine on soda cans.
Rat Urine Hoax — This page has a copy of the “rat urine” e-mail and an evaluation of its claims.
Written by Michael S. Atwood