Sunday column: E-mail hoaxes

Before we get started, remember that after you’re done reading this column, you have to forward it to 15 other people or else your first born will not get into the college of his/her choice, you will have bad luck for the next seven days … and, uhm, none of your wishes will come true. Ever.
Are we straight? Good.
I’ve had e-mail ever since I was a freshman in college (1994), and in the 15 years since, it has been a wonderful tool that I use daily. It’s just peachy.
But it has a terrible, terrible downside as well … and I’m not just talking about the “enhancement” offers that we all receive.
I am not a fan of the forwarded e-mail. Whether it’s a joke, a chain letter or a press release (kidding about that last one), they really have no home in my inbox. Typically, I delete them … and in doing so, I’ve compiled about 744 years of bad luck, I suppose.
But my least favorite of the forwarded e-mails is the hoax, which is usually sent by somebody with good intentions who doesn’t realize it was a hoax. An example is the Walmart “gang initiation” e-mail that’s been circulating in not only Lee County, but just about every state there is. The well-intentioned e-mail warns women — namely white women — to be on the lookout because of recent kidnappings in the parking lots of Walmart and Walgreens.
E-mails like this usually begin with: “My brother-in-law at the sheriff’s office wanted me to pass this one …” and in no time, there you have it — a full-blown urban legend is born.
In this latest case, all it would have taken is the first Lee County recipient of this e-mail to Google or look-up this rumor online and in seconds, they would have learned that CNBC and newspapers in Deleware, Georgia and other states have already revealed this to be a hoax.
Instead, it’s forwarded … people panic … police and deputies get phone calls and therefore, have to look into this (which wastes their valuable time) … newspapers and television stations get calls about this and therefore, have to look into it (which wastes our somewhat valuable time) … and eventually, people start telling others, “Hey, did you hear three white women were abducted at Walmart?”
Then, I suppose, they ask that person to tell 15 other people or else they’ll never meet their soulmate.
It’s confusing, I know.
I received another forward this week that tells the story of a large church sermon interrupted by two men carrying machine guns, dressed in black, who yell out, “Anyone willing to take a bullet for Christ, remain where you are.”
According to the e-mail, all but about 20 of the 2,000 people there leave. Then the preacher says, “OK, I got rid of all the hypocrites.”
I fail to understand the logic of the e-mail, and considering that there really was a gunman who shot a pastor to death recently, the e-mail is kind of offensive. Besides, wouldn’t this preacher have been arrested for doing this? Wouldn’t this have made national news?
Of course, it did tell me that I wouldn’t forward it to my friends because I’d be afraid of what they thought of me.
I didn’t forward it. I suppose my friends think I’m a bad person.
The Web site snopes.com is dedicated to debunking or verifying these “urban legend” e-mails, and it became a useful tool in our story today about the Walmart hoax.

Some of the “hot” rumors from Snope include:
* The new U.S. dollar coins purposely omit “In God We Trust” — false
* Entering your PIN code in reverse at any ATM will summon the police — false
* Rapists are luring women with $5 bills they’ve supposedly dropped — false (and weird)
* Tiger Woods gave a speech thanking the military at Obama’s inauguration — this is true … and it wasn’t the speech he was supposed to give
* You can pop popcorn kernels with two cell phones — false
* Signing a petition will help overturn a recent Senate decision to give Social Security benefits to illegal aliens — false

The site also goes into several urban legends about gangs, such as rumors that gangs kill people who flash their highbeams at them (false) and shoes hanging from power lines mean gangs are in the area (possible).
I guess the point of all of this is to not trust the Internet … or at least your e-mail. Journalists are still around for a reason — even if our numbers are deteriorating — and most of the time, you can depend on a published report from a reputable news source before you can trust a forwarded e-mail.
Of course, you can only believe what I’ve written above if you tell 20 people about it.
Hurry. Time’s a-wastin’.

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