Most online hoaxes are mildly annoying, and a few are hilarious. But propagating a false AMBER Alert over Twitter? Plastering an epilepsy forum with flashing images? Not cool. We'll take a look at some of the Web's most heinous hoaxes over the years, and sprinkle in a handful of amusing ones.
Twitter/Facebook Amber Alert
The AMBER Alert system--a child abduction alert system broadcast over radio, TV, satellite radio, and other media whenever a child is abducted--was created after nine-year-old Amber Hagerman was abducted and murdered in Arlington, Texas, in 1996. Recently, some users have also broadcast alerts over text messages and Twitter.
Last July, someone tweeted an AMBER Alert for a three-year-old girl. People responded by spreading the alert as fast and as far as they could. It turned out to be a false alarm. A similar sequence of panicked, rapid-fire tweeting followed another false AMBER Alert occurred in September.
How heinous is this? Though we're glad that no abduction occurred in either case, there's a disturbing "cry wolf" aspect to the story--what happens the next time a real AMBER Alert goes out? For eroding the value of a potentially vital line of defense against child abduction, this hoax sets the platinum standard for repugnance.
Paging PETA: In 2001, a group of enterprising MIT grad students put together a little Web site called Bonsai Kitten, which detailed how to grow a kitten in a jar for aesthetic purposes.
The site included tips on how to insert a feeding tube and a waste removal tube, and where to drill air-holes "prior to kitten insertion." It also included a gallery of pictures of "Bonsai Kittens" and a guestbook filled with love (and hate) mail.
The site was so realistic that it caused uproar among kitty enthusiasts and animal rights activists (including the Humane Society), and it eventually gained enough notoriety that the FBI investigated the site's authenticity (or lack thereof). But since no kittens were actually harmed in the perpetration of this hoax, we think it tends more toward the hilarious than the heinous.
Epilepsy Forum Raid
Anonymous, a group of online pranksters, has been blamed for an array of notorious acts of Internet grief--from uploading porn on YouTube to launching denial-of-service attacks on Scientology sites. Some of the pranks they allegedly pulled are a bit more serious, however, such as the Epilepsy Forum Raid.
In March of 2008, an epilepsy support forum run by the Epilepsy Foundation of America was attacked with uploads of flashing animations. The National Society for Epilepsy, based in the UK, fell prey to a similar attack.
The animations--which were clearly intended to induce seizures and/or migraines in epileptics--can be very dangerous for epilepsy sufferers. The attack was investigated by the FBI, which found no connections to the group Anonymous. Internet speculation has attributed the attack variously to The Internet Hate Machine, to 7chan.org, or to eBaum's World.
Bigfoot is alive--okay, actually he's dead, and he's in a freezer in Georgia. At least, that's what The New York Times and other major news outlets reported on August 14, 2008.
In the finest "made you look" tradition, two men from Georgia announced that they had found the body of Bigfoot and would present definitive proof (in the form of photographs and DNA) that Bigfoot existed. In fact, they revealed, they saw three other Bigfoots in the woods as they were dragging the dead beast's body back to their car--possible evidence that these creatures had mastered the intricacies of contract bridge but had not yet learned to control their tempers over botched bidding. Quasi-expert Tom Biscardi, an inveterate promoter of all things Bigfoot (and perpetrator of his own Bigfoot hoax just three years prior), vouched for the men.
How bad is this? Not surprisingly, the body turned out to be a costume stuffed in a freezer. But an Indiana man fronted $50,000 on behalf of Biscardi for the "body," and is now suing the pair of hoaxers to get his money back. The most heinous part of this hoax is the fact that someone actually fell for it.
Changing the Value of Pi
On April Fool's Day 1998, Mark Boslough wrote a fictional piece about Alabama legislators calling on the state government to pass a law that would change the value of pi from 3.14159... to the "Biblical value" of 3. Boslough's titled his article "Alabama Legislature Lays Siege to Pi."
Though the piece was originally posted to a newsgroup, it ended up being forwarded...and forwarded...and forwarded...
Alabama legislators began receiving letters from outraged scientists and civilians, but that's about as dangerous as the situation got. The funniest part of the hoax? It echoes an actual event: In 1897, the Indiana House of Representatives passed a resolution to change the value of pi to 3--luckily, irrationality prevailed and the bill died in the State Senate.
Taking a cue from Bonsai Kitten, a site called Save Toby used a creepy premise to throw animal rights activists into a tizzy.
The Save Toby saga began in the early days of 2005, when the site announced that its owners had found a wounded rabbit (which they named Toby) and nursed it back to health--but then declared that if they did not receive $50,000 in donations for the care of Toby by July 30, 2005, they would be forced to cook and eat the rabbit.
The owners asserted that the site was not a hoax: They would, indeed, cook and eat Toby if they did not receive the money. Animal rights activists cried "animal cruelty," to which the owners responded that they were doing nothing cruel to Toby--in fact, they were trying to save him. Supposedly, the site collected more than $24,000 before Bored.com bought it, and Toby was saved. (By the way, possible inspirations from pre-Internet days for the Save Toby hoaxers aren't hard to find.) But holding a bunny hostage for ransom? Real classy, fellas.
This hoax may have been the most senselessly cruel of any listed here. In 2007, a 13-year-old girl committed suicide after being dumped by her MySpace "boyfriend."
The girl's family later learned that the MySpace "boyfriend"--a cute boy named Josh--never existed. He was a fictional character made up by the mother of another girl. The Josh character had gained the girl's confidence before sending her a message that told her he didn't want to be friend anymore because he'd heard she was a mean person. The girl, who was on medication for depression and attention deficit disorder, took her own life the next day.
Our take: Unforgivable.
419 Nigerian Money Scams
Nigerian money scams are so overexposed in the media these days that it's hard to believe people still fall for them. Then again, the scammers send out thousands of e-mail appeals every day in the hope of getting just one gullible person to reply.
The scam itself is pretty simple: The grifter promises the randomly chosen e-mail recipient an absurd amount of money to help the crook "transfer funds" from one bank to another (or some variation thereof). To help the con artist, all the victim has to do is provide his/her personal information, bank information, and, oh yeah, a small fee (around $200--a small price to pay, considering the impending payoff) to help transfer the money. If the scammee goes along, bam! The scammer obtains all of the scammee's personal info, and a tidy little sum besides.
Not bad for one e-mail.
These scams can be life-threatening as well as costly. In some cases, the scammers invite the victims to travel to Nigeria or a bordering country to complete the transaction. In 1995, an American was killed in Lagos, Nigeria, while pursuing such a scam. Truly horrific.
Like the Nigerian money scams, work-at-home come-ons are heavily reported in the media. Yet people still fall for them. Most people know that if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. But desperation or greed makes some people forget.
Work-at-home scams promise you the opportunity to make quick, easy money from the comfort of your house; all you need is a computer--which, of course, you have. Any number of activities may be your ticket to riches--stuffing envelopes, transcribing, medical billing--but first you need to do send the scammer some money for preliminary materials. Except, of course, that materials will never come, and you'll have lost your money, and you still won't have a job.
Heinous? Such scams aren't life threatening, but they can certainly put a dent in your savings--especially if you fall for them more than once. And the fact that they prey primarily on unemployed or underemployed people who aren't exactly swimming in discretionary income (it's hard to imagine Warren Buffett jumping at the chance to make money by stuffing envelopes) increases their vileness quotient at least a little. Remember, if prospective employers ask you to send money before you start working for them...it's probably a scam.
Facebook Hoax on TechCrunch
Guess you should stay on the good side of people who run your primary social networking site. In September 2009, Facebook's PR went rogue and punk'd TechCrunch with a "Fax This Photo" option.
TechCrunch reporter Jason Kincaid opened his Facebook on September 10, 2009, and discovered that under every photo there was a new option: "Fax This Photo." It seemed ridiculous--but everyone in the TechCrunch network saw it, so he sent an e-mail to Facebook. They didn't respond, so he posted a skeptical note. He then called Facebook PR...and discovered that it was all a big prank, and that Facebook staffers were placing bets on how long it would be before TechCrunch posted it.
Heinous? Not at all. TechCrunch got PWN'd.
Of Related Interest
For two discussions--one old and one fairly new--of online scams, check out these stories:
• "Top Five Online Scams" (2005)
For a look at some relatively benign online hoaxes (mixed in with some evil ones), read this:
• "The Top 25 Web Hoaxes and Pranks" (2007)
And from deep in the vaults of PCWorld.com come these chestnuts:
• "Devious Internet Hoaxes" (2002)
• "The Worst Internet Hoaxes" (2001)
This story, "The Net's Most Heinous Hoaxes" was originally published by PCWorld.