Internet and Email Hoaxes and Scams and Why We Believe Them

Hoaxes and scams have been going around long before the advent of computers.  However, with today’s technology they can spread like wildfire.  With many of the more popular hoaxes and scams becoming viral within short periods of time.

As long as there are people there will more than likely be pranks, hoaxes and scams.  Here are a few of the favorites and why I think we (I don’t think YOU and I believe them – but many people do) believe them:

Bigfoot’s Body Found in Georgia – in 2008 one of the biggest stories was that of a couple of guys who claimed to be Bigfoot trackers – Matthew Whitton, a police officer with the Clayton County, Georgia Police Department and Ricky Dyer, a used car salesman (and a former security guard), announced they found the dead body of Bigfoot.  No doubt they were trying to draw attention to their phony expedition business.   The two went so far as to call a press conference in California.   The BFRO (BigFoot Field Research Organization) – yes there is such an organization, proved it to be a hoax and identified the costume that was used.  The story ran in thousands of newspapers along with heavy coverage on TV and the Internet.


Why we believed it – first off, Whitton was a police officer so you wouldn’t think he would put his career on the line… so he gave the story some plausibility.  Secondly, for decades there have been rumors of Bigfoot, Yeti or Sasquatch sightings – so it was nice to believe, if even for a brief time, that maybe, just maybe… Bigfoot had been real.

The Nigerian Email Scam – also known as the 419 fraud, has been around for decades.  It started circa the 1920s via mail postmarked Nigeria (or other foreign country) and was called the ‘Spanish Prisoner’ con back then.  As technology advanced the scam passed through faxes and now via emails.  The premise is the same – a wealthy foreigner needs help moving millions of dollars from his homeland promises a hefty percentage of his fortune for assisting him.

The emails promise rich rewards for helping a government official, a bank or a family out of an embarrassing situation or legal problem.  The lure is a mention of multi-million dollar sums with a promise of a huge percentage to you if you help.  For those that agree to participate in this International bail-out, something will inevitably go wrong.  The paperwork will be lost and they’ll be delay after delay; and you’ll be requested to send insignificant amounts of money compared to the windfall that will soon be bestowed upon you.

Nigerian Scam

Why we believed it – and, yes, people DO fall for it.  In fact, many people have fallen prey to the Nigerian scam.  Quite simply, the biggest reason is greed.  The promise of large sums of money is attractive.

Derbyshire Fairy Hoax – first appeared April 1, 2007.  The date itself should have rang a bell… I mean April Fool’s Day is infamous for pranks.  However, this hoax lived on for quite some time after April Fools.   As I said, on April 1, 2007 a picture circulated around the web of an 8-inch mummified fairy found in Derbyshire, England.  A dog walker found it in a garden.  An example of the content in the email,

The 8 inch remains complete with wings; skin, teeth and flowing red hair have been examined by anthropologists and forensic experts who can confirm that the body is genuine. X-rays of the ‘fairy’ reveal an anatomically identical skeleton to that of a child. The bones however, are hollow like those of a bird making them particularly light. The puzzling presence of a navel even suggests that the beings reproduce the same as humans despite the absense of reproductive organs.

The creator of the fairy, Dan Baines, an artist and magician, put the picture with the fictional story on his website just before April 1, 2007.  On April Fool’s Day he came clean and appended his website with a confession that it was a prank.  However, many people still believed the Fairy was real.

Why we believed it – because the child inside of us wanted to believe in fairies or mystical beings.  The idea that our childhood fantasies could be true was just too enticing.  Not to mention that Baines did an incredible job of creating a very realistic fairy.

Ogling Breasts Increases Men’s Lifespans – was an email hoax.  And if I were a betting woman, I’d bet this hoax was perpetuated by a man.  The email claimed a medical study published in the New England Journal of Medicine proved that ogling women’s breasts would increase a man’s lifespan.  The “study” was supposedly headed by a Dr. Karen Weatherby (who from all accounts, does not exist).

Dr. Weatherby and fellow researchers from three hospitals conducted studies on 200 men for five years – half were instructed to look at busty women daily and the other half were instructed to refrain from looking.  The “results” were that the men that looked at busty women daily, had lower blood pressures and lower incidences of coronary artery disease.  The conclusion was that men who ogled women’s breasts on a daily basis would live four to five years longer than their non-ogling male friends.  There was no such study by the New England Journal of Medicine.

Why we believed it – when I say “we”, I mean men.  Honestly, I doubt very few men, actually believed it.  But come on… how could they not use this hoax to their advantage?  I can hear it now, “Honey, the New England Journal of Medicine says it’s good for my health to ogle boobs, and I know you want me to live longer?”  And I’m fairly certain that if a man ogled boobs that were not attached to their significant other, their life spans would not be increased, but rather, cut short.  Either by the woman being ogled or by his girlfriend or wife.

Lonelygirl15 – debuted on YouTube on June 16, 2006, as a sixteen year old video blogger, using the anonymous name Lonelygirl15.   It started out airing the normal everyday goings on of a typical teenage girl. However, it quickly transformed into the crazy goings on in this young girl’s life.  Like her family being a part of secret occult practices and the disappearance of her parents due to this occult activity.    Discussions started popping up on the YouTube comments speculating on the authenticity of Lonelygirl15.  The really cool thing that happened here is that a viewer went to the lonelygirl15 website message board and launched his own investigation (with the help of other viewers).  With some detective work, fans were able to piece together inconsistencies and on September 2006, Los Angeles Times reporter Richard Rushfield was the first to provide proof of a hoax, when he wrote of,

Shaina Wedmedyk, Chris Patterson, and an anonymous law student, who set up a sting on MySpace to reveal that the Creative Artists Agency was behind the videos. Eventually it was revealed that 16-year-old “Bree” was played by 20-year-old New Zealand actress Jessica Rose.


Why we believed it – in this case people didn’t fall for her too long.  Many fans started suspecting some type of publicity hoax fairly early on.   As for those that did believe Lg15… they felt sorry for her and worried about her.  Most people are trusting, so it would be hard to believe that a teenager would tell the things she did and it not be true.

Bonsai Kitten Hoax – is possibly one of the most bizarre Internet hoaxes.  In 2001 the Bonsai Kitten website, which is no longer active, boasted information and equipment for making bonsai kittens.  The website was an elaborate hoax by three MIT grad students.  How it worked was soon after birth the kitten is placed in a glass container, allowing the kitten to grow to fill the vessel.  The kitten allegedly would breathe through specially drilled holes in the glass and fed and expel waste through tubes, and their purpose is supposedly as an elaborate ornament, instead of a pet.  While the website is no longer online, mirrors with copies of the website content exist and are generally referred to.

Why we believed it – there was so much outrage over the Bonsai Kitten Hoax.  Emails started circulating requesting people sign a petition to close the website down and forward it to their friends.  Check out Cruel Site of the Day and read up on the outrage of Bonsai Kitten.  Since there was a website it seemed authentic to people.  We don’t tolerate animal abuse.  So people thought with their hearts instead of their heads and the sheer craziness of it must have meant it was real.

Bill Gates Wants to Give You Money – this 1997 hoax was essentially an email chain that claimed AOL and Microsoft was running a Beta test of email tracking (in some variations it was Intel and Microsoft).  The original email was written from the perspective of someone who had tried it, gotten the checks, and known others who had done it as well.  The email stated that if you would pass on the email to your friends, you would get $245 for each person you to which you passed it on.  But the money did’t stop there – for each third person in the chain that received, you would receive $241.  The money would soon start rolling in, and it was all thanks to a little time and effort on your part in forwarding the test message.  Easy Money!  Of course, the email was bogus, and the only thing that spread was the email and its variations.

BillGates Giveaway

Why we believed it – the ploy originally worked because it came about fairly early in the general population’s acceptance of email, and people did not know what to expect from the big wide web.  On top of that, Bill Gates and Microsoft were known to spend money on research, and they certainly could afford it.  But unfortunately the message is still making its rounds today, 12 years later, at a time when we should all know better.

Citizens Against Breastfeeding – an organization calling itself ‘Citizens Against Breast-Feeding’ supposedly petitioned Congress to ban breastfeeding.  The absurdity alone should have raised red flags… but once again many moms, soon to be moms and women in general were up in arms.  From -an email started circulating that read,

REPUBLICAN CONVENTION MUST BAN BREASTFEEDING NOW: Over 200,000 American citizens have signed a petition urging Congress to declare breastfeeding unlawful. This primitive ritual has and continues to be a violation of babies' civil rights. It's an incestuous relationship with mothers leading to moral decay. Women enjoy an erotic experience that imposes oral gratification on innocent infants after birth. Their reprehensible behavior teaches children illicit sex, subsequently manifesting addiction to promiscuity.

The email also included a mailing address, as well as a phone number.  Many people, believing the email called the number… and what they heard was this recorded phone message,

Thank you for calling Citizens Against Breast-Feeding, a grassroots organization that persuades women to abolish this incestuous act of immoral perversion. We are privately financed and therefore not seeking donations. However, you may wish to apply for a position with one of our field offices in New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles, now hiring. If so please leave your name, address and phone number after the beep.

Ban Breastfeeding

Why we believed it – Breastfeeding is a touchy subject, especially in America.  In many places in the world, breastfeeding is commonplace – but not in America.  Many Americans are very uptight on the topic of breastfeeding in public.  So for many it seemed reasonable that people wanted to ban breastfeeding.  Then top it off with a phone number and an actual message regarding the ban and the flames were fueled.  This hoax started in 2000 and I’d love to say that things have changed in the past 9 years… unfortunately, there is still a stigma surrounding breastfeeding in public.

Genpet – around 2005 Genpets were introduced to the public through both its website ( and word of mouth.  Genpets were genetically Bio-engineered pets for masses, roughly humanoid in appearance and created with the best DNA possible from any number of existing animals.  You could buy them in 1 year and 3 year lifetime versions, and the plastic bubble packaging that enveloped your precious sleeping pet incorporated an impressive monitoring system to ensure that you new pet arrived in the healthiest possible condition.  The Genpet would immediately bond to you or your child upon wakening from its dormant state, assuring that with the opening of the package love and loyalty would immediately follow.

Why we believed it – Genpets were not real, but the presentation was quite good.  The Genpets were the work of Canadian artist Adam Brandejs.  The fake pets worked for a number of reasons, not the least of which were the numerous references on the website to real genetic engineering projects.  There was also a completely packaged Genpet mockup, which was shown to be held by real live people – so it had to be true.  Finally, the small humanoid pet was similar to adorable creatures in popular movies, giving a reference and letting a more than a few people the hopes that it was indeed real.  Unfortunately, it was all fake, and the family dog was to remain the pet of choice.

$250 Cookie Recipe – while this hoax came to fame via the Internet, it actually dates back to much earlier times.  In 1948 it was printed in a cookbook, and has popped up in varying forms ever since.  The basic gist is that a woman asks a waitress for the recipe of a cookie/cake she is eating.   The waitress replies that it is x amount (most commonly “two fifty”).  The customer, thinking that it’s $2.50, tells the waitress that she wants to buy the recipe.  The waitress delivers it, and the customer reads it.  When the customer checks out, she gets a bill for $250, not the $2.50 she thought.  Since she has seen the recipe, the management refuses to take back the charge.  In order to get even with this gross overcharge, the customer shares the recipe with the world at large.  The email (in this case) spread quickly, and ever since email has been popular this hoax has surfaced time and again as new victims fall to its ploy.

Chocolate chip cookies

Why we believe it – the hoax works because it puts the receiver in the know for something expensive and valuable.  The recipe, which in most cases is nothing out of the ordinary, is good enough to be believable on first glimpse, is often shared with friends and family.  It also works because it is an example of an individual “winning” against the established business, and many people would spread it simply because they felt it would further the cause.

Christopher Walken for President – in 2005 web denizens were presented with websites that were announcing actor Christopher Walken’s run for the Office of President.  Sites such as and were all abuzz with the actor’s entry into politics.  The sites covered Walken’s political views and his history, putting forth a fairly convincing argument to be taken serious as a contender.  Unfortunately, it was not true, and Christopher Walken had no intentions of running for president.  The hoax was perpetrated by a group calling themselves “Walken 2008 Campaign”, and the websites grew from a discussion in an online forum.

Walken 2008

Why we believe it – people found the hoax easy to believe for several reasons.  Walken had played political characters in the past, making it very easy to be seen as such a character.  There have also been several actors turned politician that became president (Ronald Reagan, for example), so the precedence for an actor turned President had already been set.  On top of that, Fred Thompson, an actor, actually did run for President in 2008.  It does make one wonder – would he have won?

Camel Spiders – in 2004 a picture from Iraq showing US Servicemen holding up a picture of two Camel Spiders (and they did appear to be quite scary) were circulating through email.  The large spiders were reported to grow “as large as a dinner plate”, could run 25 mph, and could do a jump attack several feet into the air.  They were also said to eat the stomachs of camels (hence the name), and leave their eggs behind to hatch.

The spiders were even said to have an anesthetic bite that kept their victims unaware of the danger, which left servicemen to wake up and find missing chunks of flesh from a camel spider visit during the night.  As such things tend to go, the rumors and claims of the camel spider proved to be false.  In fact, they weren’t spiders at all, but, wind scorpions.  While they can grow to 6” in size, it is far from “dinner plate” size.  The original picture was quite close to its subjects, making them seem larger than life.  Additionally, the camel spider’s top speed was closer to 10 mph, and lacked any kind of venom or anesthetic in its bite.

Why we believed it – the hoax spread quickly, playing upon people’s fear.  The ideal that it was a spider (not a scorpion) fit some pre-existing fears of such creatures, and its appearance in a generally unknown environment such as a middle east desert added to its mystery.  But the biggest reason we believed it was because of our young men and women stationed so far away from us.  It may have been easier to fear for our troops over big spiders than to think about the real threat they face.

Space Shuttle Astronauts Conducted Sex Experiments – in 1996, Frenchman Pierre Kohler, author of The Final Mission,  came out with the news that shuttle astronauts were doing sex experiments in space.  He claimed that super top secret NASA publication No. 12-571-3570 detailed the experiments, and that this information had been discovered thanks to intense searches on the Internet.  (Found on the internet – well it must be true!).  One of the principal findings, according to Kohler, is that the tried and true missionary position simply did not work in zero gravity.  Who would have guessed?

The claim proved to be false, and the document numbering system supposedly used did not match anything in use by NASA. NASA officially debunked it, claiming that they have not nor plan on doing any sex experiments in space.  Adding insult to injury, another fake document surfaced, very similar to Kohler’s find, even down to the numbering scheme and title, but predating his by more than a year.


Why we believed it – the news spread quickly, and the official document number gave it an air of authenticity.  Besides, we assumed that just because they were in space didn’t mean there wasn’t a little lovin’ going on.

Swine Flu Warning Emai – this is a newer email hoax going around.  With the H1N1 or Swine Flu being in the news daily, this email plays on our fears (which many hoaxes and scams do).  The Swine Flu hit the U.S.  April 2009 and by July 2009 an email was circulated spreading fear.  The email H1N1 (swine flu) is currently wiping out entire villages in parts of Asia and has already mutated into a more deadly strain, the email claimed.   The email used words like ‘warning’, I’m not an ‘alarmist’ and that the information comes from the CDC, Center for Disease Control, and John Hopkins University.  The message claimed that six out of ten people will die and invoke the utilization of martial law.  There is no truth in this email hoax.  The claim that the information came from the CDC and John Hopkins is false.  To date there has been no mutation of the current Swine Flu strain and authorities say the H1N1 is less dangerous than the seasonal flu.

Why we believed it – the use of scare tactics that are employed in these kinds of hoaxes play on our fears of a pandemic… even more so when you have children.  And by saying the information came from the CDC and John Hopkins gave the email more authenticity.

In conclusion, we need to do a little research when we receive these kinds of emails before forwarding them to everyone in our address books.  And when you hear outlandish stories or come across ridiculous websites check into them a bit before spreading them around.

Two great places to check for hoaxes and scams are the Federal Trade Commission website and Snopes.

Share your favorite email or Internet Scam or hoax with us.

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