CyberWatch Column


Urban Myths


Professor of Computer Information Systems

Norwich University, Northfield, VT

This is another in a continuing series devoted to how ordinary people can protect themselves when using the Internet.

Pranksters have been using e-mail to fool gullible people for years using a particular sort of incorrect information:  deliberate hoaxes.  A hoax is a mischievous trick, especially one based on a made-up story.  There are two major kinds of hoaxes circulating on the Internet:  urban myths and false information about viruses.  The archives in the Urban Myths Web site are full of hilarious hoaxes, some of which have been circulating for years.  Before we get into the details, let's think about the reasons that hoaxes can last so long on the 'Net?  Why don't they die out?

The problem is the distributed nature of the Internet.  Information is not distributed solely from a centrally-controlled site; on the contrary, anyone can broadcast any kind of data any time.  There are neither reliable creation dates nor obligatory expiry dates on files, so if someone receives a five-year-old document, they may have no obvious way of recognizing its age and they almost certainly have no instant way of knowing that its information is obsolete or flatly wrong. All they see is that the document has been sent to them recently, usually by someone they know personally.

Here are some notorious examples of the bizarre and sometimes disturbing urban myths that are thoroughly debunked on the Web site:

No corporation or charity will pay you for forwarding an e-mail message.

  • No one is monitoring how many copies of an e-mail message are sent to your correspondents.
  • Alt.folklore.urban and Urban Legends Archive <  >

  • CIAC Hoaxbusters < >
  • Hoax FAQ < >
  • Urban Legends and Folklore < >
  • Urban Myths < >
  • Gullibility on the Net < >