By Herb Weisbaum ConsumerMan
msnbc.com contributor
updated 4/1/2007 9:45:19 AM ET 2007-04-01T13:45:19

Can you believe it?  Forward an e-mail from the Ericsson Company to eight friends and you’ll get a free laptop. April Fools'!

Did you hear? The comedian Sinbad recently died of a heart attack, but it was never reported in the news. April Fools'!

Check this out! Pour some Coca-Cola on a piece of raw pork and watch the worms crawl out. April Fools'!

Thanks to the Internet, every day is April Fools' Day. There are literally thousands of myths like these circulating in cyberspace. Unlike the malicious messages sent by cyber-thieves — designed to steal your personal information — these hoax e-mails simply spread rumors and false information.

Some of the bogus messages can be scary, like the one that warns that lead has been found in some major brands of lipstick. The FDA says it’s not true.

Others are just silly. Did you hear that a contestant on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire”couldn’t decide if an elephant or the moon was larger? It never happened. According to Snopes.com, one of the best myth-busting sites, the photo that accompanies the bogus e-mail is also a hoax — digitally altered to validate the bogus story.

Myths just keep on coming
New hoaxes hit the Internet every week. Snopes says the e-mail alert that Sesame Street is replacing Cookie Monster with Veggie Monster is false. The widely circulated photos of “painted” cats are amazing, but they were all created on a computer. The e-mail calling for Americans to boycott the new U.S. dollar coin because it was designed without the words “In God We Trust” is also not true. 

How do these things get started? Some are written by people who want to warn others about a real problem and just get their facts wrong. But myth-busters say hoaxes usually are done by people just wanting to have a little fun. “They’re playing jokes or seeing what they can do,” says Audri Lanford, co-founder of Scambusters.org.

Audri and her husband Jim started the site back in 1994. They’ve been tracking Internet myths and urban legends ever since.

“Everything that was going around then is still going around now,” she tells me. “Nothing dies.”

One of the first e-mail myths I remember started in 1997. It was supposedly from Bill Gates, who had written a new program to trace forwarded e-mail.

“Forward this to everyone you know,” the message said, “and if it reaches 1,000 people, everyone on the list will receive $1,000 at my expense.”

Lanford tells me this Gates myth is not only alive nearly 10 years later — it’s one of the most popular ones they see.

According to Snopes, there are at least 29 variations of this “tracking program” e-mail, naming companies such as AOL, Coca-Cola, Disney, The Gap, J. Crew, Honda, M&M Mars, Nike, and Victoria’s Secret. All are bogus.

At Hoaxbusters.org, a site run by the U.S. Department of Energy, Bill Orvis has been debunking e-mail myths for 13 years. He says once a rumor has been released “it just keeps coming back.”

Many of the people sending them are “just trying to be a good neighbor,” Orvis says. They have get a message with what seems like an important warning and it tells them to pass it on. “It’s so easy to forward e-mail that they just go ahead and do it,” he says.

Sometimes, the message has a kernel of truth to it, so the recipient thinks it’s legit and should be shared. And indeed, a small percentage of these mass e-mailings are true, but there’s no way to know unless you investigate.

Some blasts from the past
Ovris tells me the “Life Is Beautiful” hoax from five years ago is making a big comeback.The message warns about a non-existent e-mail with a PowerPoint presentation attachment called “life is beautiful.pps”:

If you receive it DO NOT OPEN THE FILE UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES, and delete it immediately.

If you open this file, a message will appear on your screen saying: “It is too late now, your life is no longer beautiful,” subsequently you will LOSE EVERYTHING IN YOUR PC and the person who sent it to you will gain access to your name, e-mail and password.

Audri Lanford at Scambusters.org says the “ATM PIN” hoax is another one that is making the rounds again. It advises if you are ever held up at an ATM and forced to withdraw cash, you should enter your PIN in reverse. The transaction will proceed normally, the message says, but the ATM will call the police.

“This could mean the difference between life and death,” it says. “Please pass this along to everyone possible.” Please don’t. This advice is wrong and could possibly wind up getting someone hurt in a hold-up.

If in doubt, don’t pass it on
There’s enough junk mailing flying around the Internet, tying up bandwidth and clogging in-bins. Don’t add to the problem. 

If the message says “forward this to everyone you know,” there’s a 99 percent chance it’s a fake. Check it out before you forward it to everyone in your address book. Go to one of the sites that track urban legends and myths. There a good chance they know about it.

Don’t believe a mass e-mailing just because it attributes its information to a police department, government agency or reputable news organization. Most of these bogus warnings cite reliable sources to build credibility.

Some of the messages now tell you “Snopes says this is real.” But that may not be true. The only way to know for sure is to go to the site and see for yourself. You may be surprised to find, as I have, that Snopes says the message is false.

If you get a myth e-mail that you feel is so amusing you want to share it with your friends, at least tell them something like, “This isn’t true, but it sure is funny, so I wanted you to see it.”

A final thought
I’ve noticed that when people forward these messages, they often include nearly everyone in their address book. I’ve seen literally hundreds of e-mail addresses in the “to” column. Some people on the list — and I include myself in this category — don’t want everyone else to have their e-mail address. This is poor netiquette. If you are going to forward one of these things to a huge number of people — and I hope you won’t — at least do it using the “bcc” box.

Checking out an e-mail:

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