By Herb Weisbaum ConsumerMan
msnbc.com contributor
updated 3/31/2009 5:39:14 PM ET 2009-03-31T21:39:14

Let’s play a game of “what if.” What if you got an e-mail or text message warning that a gang initiation would happen at a local Wal-Mart this week and it involved killing people?

a) Forward it to your friends and family in the area. b) Call the police. c) Realize it was a hoax and hit delete.

If you chose a or b, you’re not alone.

In the last few weeks, this bogus warning about gang violence at Wal-Mart stores has spread like wildfire. Different versions have different targets: black women, white women, children or men.

It sounds crazy, but this mass e-mailing is being taken seriously by a lot of people. Police departments across country have been flooded with 911 calls. Many have issued news releases telling people these gang alerts are hoaxes.

“This thing was starting to get way out of hand,” says Deputy Scott Wilson, public information officer for sheriff’s department in Kitsap County, Wash. “Clearly people believed this.” Some of the callers demanded a deputy come to their house. Others wanted to make sure the sheriff’s department knew about the threat, so officers could stake out the stores.

According to the web site Snopes.com, a trusted authority on urban legends, the first e-mail about this gang initiation rite surfaced in July of 2005. It has come back in various forms over the years. For some unknown reason, it picked up steam again. 

The fear factor
A lot of e-rumors play on people’s fears. They warn that something bad is about to happen: the government is going to tax every e-mail; wireless companies are about to release everyone’s cell phone numbers; carjackers are placing flyers on windshields to trick drivers into getting out of their vehicles. All of these “warnings” have been circulating for years. All of them are untrue.

“Even if people are skeptical about an e-mail, they will forward the ones that involve a threat or warning of danger “says Rich Buhler, founder of the web site TruthOrFiction.com. In many cases they’ll put a note at the top that says something like, “I don’t know if this is true but just in case …”

E-Rumors never die
“One of the most remarkable things is the persistence of these e-mail hoaxes,” notes Steve Fox, editorial director at PC World. “It can disappear for years and then come back in a slightly mutated form.”

Fox notes that one of the original e-mail hoaxes, Bill Gates will pay you to forward an e-mail, is still making the rounds. For 10 years now, news reports have explained that this message is bogus. And yet, it will not die.

How do these things get started? No one knows for sure. Sid Shuman, senior editor at GamePro magazine, has followed urban legends for more than a decade. He says there are “a lot of jokesters on the Internet” who love to fool people with their creations.

TruthOrFiction.com’s Buhler agrees that some e-rumors are deliberate hoaxes. But he believes the majority of them are started with sincere intentions. The writer just had “limited or wrong information,” he says.

Why do so many people forward these mass e-mail messages?

Gullibility has a lot to do with it. But as Shuman points out, “Some of the craziest ones are true.”

According snopes.com the following are all real.

  • Sesame Street character Bert appears on posters carried by supporters of Osama Bin Laden.
  • Actor James Woods saw some of the 9-11 hijackers on a flight prior to the attack. They were making a trial run. His report to authorities was ignored.

Every week new e-mail hoaxes join the growing list of urban legends. Here are just a few of those recently shot down by Snopes.com:

Benefits for illegal aliens?

  • Hoax: The U.S. Senate voted to give Social Security benefits to illegal aliens. You need to sign this petition to President Obama and forward it to everyone on your e-mail list.
  • Fact: There was no such vote. Snopes points out that this petition began circulating in mid-2006 with people being asked to contact President Bush.

AIG-Congress connection?

  • Hoax: Congress approved the bailout of AIG because the company insures the lawmakers’ pension trust.
  • Fact: The billions of dollars loaned to AIG came from the Federal Reserve. It was not approved by Congress. AIG told Snopes it does not insure the U.S. Congressional Trust. No private company does.

The bottom line
Many of these e-mail rumors are just silly. Others, if taken seriously, make people worry for no reason. Some actually provide dangerous advice that can get someone hurt. There’s an e-mail that’s been going around for years that says if someone tries to rob you at an ATM punch in your PIN backwards and that will summon the police. This is bogus.

Buhler of TruthOrFiction.com wants people to realize the power of the Internet. “When they click that mouse to send an e-mail they’ve become a publisher on the largest publishing machine that has ever existed,” he says. “Even though they may only send it to 12 friends, they never know if those 12 friends will send it to their friends. It can become a multi-million circulated e-mail without them ever knowing it.”

Before you forward a mass e-mail, check it out with a reliable source such as Snopes.com, TruthorFiction.com or UrbanLegends.com.

These sites are simple to use and you can find out if the message is true or false in just seconds. Most have in-depth articles that explain the background of the myth. Please do this as a courtesy to everyone in your address book. If it’s not true you don’t want to forward it.

Note: Some of these hoax e-mails now say the sender verified the information with Snopes. Don’t believe it. Check yourself. Trust no one. Verify.

© 2013 msnbc.com.  Reprints

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