Tech hoaxes, scams, urban legends, and practical jokes

You can't believe everything you read on the Internet. Yet so many people do!

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2013: The year of the hoax?

An airplane note-passing fight made up by a producer of the Bachelor. A twerking-gone-wrong video that turned out to be made by late night host Jimmy Kimmel. A comedian got tricked by another comedian running a fake Twitter account for Picante Salsa. Some might say that 2013 was the year of the hoax online. But longtime Internet denizens know that hoaxes and trickery focused on technology have been with us for much longer than the Web.

Credit: SVT archive
Do-it-yourself Swedish color TV

You can't blame the Swedes for wanting more out of television in 1962; after all, they had access to only a single government-run channel, which broadcast in black and white. That sounds boring and it probably was, but the people running the channel apparently had enough of a sense of humor to put on a show on explaining, with lots of sciencey-sounding gibberish, how viewers at home could turn their sets into color TVs just by pulling a nylon stocking over the screen. It didn't work, naturally, but the announcers dragged things out by telling viewers they had to be watching at just the right angle. Perhaps the April 1 broadcast date should've been a clue.

kremvax

Today we take it for granted that the Internet spans the world and just about every nation has access to standard computer equipment. But in 1984, the nascent Internet community on Usenet was genuinely shocked to see a message from Soviet leader Konstantin Chernenko, announcing that the Russians not only had access to Unix computers, but had set up a VAX site called kremvax to foster understanding across the Iron Curtain. Two weeks later, the Dutch prankster who has been the real author of the messages fessed up. The Russians really did get on Usenet in 1990 -- and to honor the epic hoax, they named their first connected Unix server kremvax.

Bill Gates will pay you to forward this email

Sometime in the late '90s, you were almost certainly forwarded an email that purported to be from Bill Gates, claiming that if you passed the email on to your friends, you'd be paid hundreds of dollars. The email's claims -- that Microsoft could track your email, that they were teaming up with then arch-rival AOL, that it would all help Internet Explorer somehow -- were obvious nonsense to anyone who knew much about technology, but thousands hit "send" anyway. Amazingly, Wired's Jonathon Keats discovered the hoaxer: Bryan Mack, who, as a college student in 1997, saw a friend in a computer lab get a get-rich-quick scam email and decided he could write a better one.

You can erase your hard drive with magnets

This may not be a hoax so much as a misunderstanding, but it's been promulgated by people who should know better (among them the creators of Breaking Bad). Yes, information on hard drives is stored magnetically, and yes, magnetic fields can corrupt that data, but to really erase it you'd need a magnet as powerful as one you'd find in an MRI machine. And of course the new wave of solid-state flash drives aren't magnetic at all. It'd be much simpler, easier, and more effective to just smash your drive with a hammer, or, as in the photo at left, to melt it.

Credit: Wikipedia
C++ is a scam to keep programmers employed

C++, an object-oriented derivative of C, is a programming language whose complexity has caused many in the tech community to grumble. And so many weren't surprised in 2008 when a suppressed IEEE 1998 interview with C++ creator Bjarne Stroustrup came to light, revealing he made it deliberately complex so that fewer programmers would be smart enough to write it and could command high wages. It was a hoax, of course, though Stroustrup really had given an interview about C++ around that time. Stroustrup says that if he had really made those claims about C++, his version would have been funnier.

Credit: Personal screenshot
jdbgmgr.exe

The turn of the 21st century was the golden age of the panicked email about viruses, no doubt because there really were a flurry of viruses going around at the time. One of the most common notes you probably received involved a virus that laid dormant on your hard drive for two weeks before erasing everything -- but fortunately, you could trash it if you caught it in time. The note even told you where to find this evil program, represented by a mysterious bear icon, on your hard drive. In fact, jdbgmgr.exe was just a debugger app that was part of Microsoft's Java development environment, and affected most people not at all, but we all still trashed it anyway.

Got You: Evocash vs. ICafe

Of all those widespread early '00s computer virus hoaxes, "Got You" was the one with the most intriguing back story. A group of scammers going collectively by the name ICafe tried to use the Evocash payment transfer service for nefarious purposes; when they were kicked off the site, they started sending emails out at random claiming to contain a devastating and unremovable virus, with forged headers that made it appear to have come from Evocash. Evocash has long faded out of existence, though that no doubt has less to do with ICafe and more with, say, Paypal.

EFS-1

The EFS-1 was produced by a company going by several names, including ImageK and Silicon Film. Well, "produced" is the wrong word. Let's say "promised." The EFS-1 promised to be a transitional gadget as digital photography took off, a storage unit the size of a roll of 35 millimeter film that you could pop into a film camera, take pictures with, and then attach to a computer to download them digitally. There's some dispute over whether the company ever thought it could deliver such a product or if it was just a scam to attract dot-com-boom investment money, but by September 2001 the company had filed for bankruptcy.

Fancy, pricey HDMI cables

Longtime audiophiles and hi-fi geeks can be forgiven for knowing in their guts that cheap cables always give you an inferior signal. Unfortunately, this instinct from the analog era doesn't apply to digital AV connectors like HDMI cables -- either they work or they don't, and spending more won't give you a "better" picture or sound, as CNet's Geoffrey Morrison outlined in exhaustive detail. That doesn't mean that vendors don't continue to try to trick you into spending $100 on a cable that should cost less than $5.

Credit: Facebook personal photo
Viral Facebook privacy notices

We're going to guess that you probably don't have that many lawyers on your list of Facebook friends, and yet there was a point in early 2012 when everyone was posting legal gobbledygook on their timeline in some desperate attempt to keep Facebook from violating their privacy. Probably you don't need us to point out that it was all nonsense, but it's worth remembering that Facebook's constant rejiggering of its own privacy settings put people in enough of a confused panic to believe it. (Also worth remembering: similar privacy panics hit earlier Internet services, like AIM in 2004.)

Credit: Xbox.com
The Xbox One backwards compatibility hoax

Just to show that the supposedly tech-savvy are still falling prey to these hoaxes: it was just a few weeks ago that a rumor swirled around the Xbox community about a secret series of button-presses would unlock a backwards compatibility mode that would allow Xbox 360 games to play on an Xbox One. In reality, you'll just get into an unfinished developer toolkit and probably brick your console, and no backwards compatibility mode exists. As our blogger Peter Smith notes, "If the machine had such a feature, don't you think Microsoft would be promoting it heavily?"