Scams, hoaxes, and urban legends

My Favorite Web Sites - Winchester Star - 11/22/01
 by Martin Zombeck

This is a bi-weekly column providing an annotated list of Web sites that may be of interest to the community. Each column will list sites that belong to a particular category: search engines, art, online newspapers and magazines, health and medicine, history, business and economics, etc. or sites relevant to a particular season, for example, skiing or gardening. Most sites will be non-commercial. To make it easier to access the sites, each bi-weekly column will be posted on the Town of Winchester's Web site so that the sites can be accessed and bookmarked without having to be typed. Previous columns will be archived at the Winchester site, also.

If it's too good to be true, it usually is .....

I recently received an e-mail with the following message: "My name is Everest Idaisn. I served as a Senior Manager in one of the Commercial banks in my country, but just recently I was appointed as one of the directors of the same bank. We are requesting you to write us in order to claim US$28.6 million as next of kin to late Engr. Greg Harris a whitemen (sic) (foreigner). Late Engr. Greg Harris was a good customer to my bank and he worked with African Petroleum Company as Architectural Engineer, he nationalized in Nigeria. Throughout his thirty-six years, he worked with Oil Firm in Nigeria, late Engr. Greg Harris died in 1996 in a local air crash, he left no next of kin or any name of beneficiary to his account. We are hereby promising you that we must use our good office to transfer the fund to you if you will be interested in the ideal (sic). We are not going to spend much time in this transaction since we shall credit the account of our Foreign Bank in your favour and debit the account of Late Engr Greg. Harris with us. You should also have in mind that as soon as the transaction proves all right, we shall come to your country for disbursement. We have to agree that forty percent will be given to us in Nigeria, forty percent to our foreign Bankers in Europe, while twenty percent will be given to you" - a cool 5.7 million. What a deal! This a variation of Nigerian Scam 419, known since the early 1980's. A Web site detailing this scam is given below.

Among the junk mail and spam that fills your e-mail box are letters from your friends and relatives warning you about destructive new viruses, the toxicity of aspartamine (Equal or Nutrasweet), chain letters, children in trouble, and other items designed to get you to forward the message to everyone you know. Use one of the sites below to determine the validity of these hundreds of messages before you hit the forward button and clog the Internet.

An "Urban Legend" or "Urban Myth" is usually an incredible story that has been told in several forms, and which many people believe despite the lack of actual evidence to support the story. An example from the Urban Legends Research Center Web site: "A person tells you a detailed story about a businessman who went to Las Vegas on a trip and who woke up in a bathtub full of ice one morning with a kidney missing and a sign nearby that says "Call 911 or you'll die," after meeting an attractive woman the night before and accepting an invitation to have a drink with her back in her room". Before repeating this story at your next cocktail party, check it out at one of the sites below.

Nigerian Scam 419
This site is dedicated to the classic Nigerian scam and its variations. The Nigerian Scam, is according to some reports, the third to fifth largest industry in Nigeria, and has run since the 1980's. You, the target, receive unsolicited correspondence concerning Nigeria containing either a money laundering or other illegal proposal. If you respond and accept the bait, you, Mr. Greedy, will be asked to pay up front an advance fee of some sort. This is the part that separates you from your hard-earned cash. Most e-mails originate from or are traceable back to Nigeria. However, some originate from other nations, mostly also West African nations such as Ghana, Togo, Liberia, Sierra Leone, or the Ivory Coast ( Cote D'Ivoire ). So wide spread is this scam that a site in Bangkok, Thailand ( is selling T-shirts with an example letter. See how much geography you can learn on the Internet!

The Bunk Stops Here
A site that contains links to dozens of sites debunking scams, hoaxes, and urban legends and allows you to test your suspicions at several popular sites simultaneously by entering a few keywords from the suspect message. This excellent site was recently recommended my Marie Ariel of the Winchester Public Library.

Symantec Security Response
Symantec Security Response uncovers virus hoaxes on a regular basis. The site lists these hoaxes by their familiar titles: Antichrist, Be My Valentine, Big Brother, Irish Virus, etc. The Symantec site at lists real virus threats and security advisories. This latter site should definitely be bookmarked.

This US Department of Energy site describes hoaxes and chain letters found on the Internet; discusses how to recognize hoaxes, what to do about them, and some of the history of hoaxes on the Internet.

Urban Legends Research Center
One of the best sites on "urban legends". This site is organized by category - food, government, disease, drugs, religion, and dozens more.

Prophet and Loss
Did Nostradamus, the French astrologer born in 1503, predict the September 11 attack? Read a very entertaining discussion of the various versions of this urban legend. Also attributed to Nostradamus - "Come the millennium, month 12, In the home of greatest power, The village idiot will come forth, To be acclaimed the leader." Nostradamus was obviously no great fan of 'George Dubbya'.

Urban Legends Reference Pages
Arranged by category.

Urban Legends and Folklore
Arranged by over two dozen categories to aid you in examining the message you just received.

Skeptical Inquirer
"The Magazine for Science and Reason". The official journal of The Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal. The CSICOP was started by Carl Sagan, Isaac Asimov, James Randi, Martin Gardner, and others. CSICOP "encourages the critical investigation of paranormal and fringe-science claims from a responsible, scientific point of view and disseminates factual information about the results of such inquiries to the scientific community and the public".

When he is not updating the Town of Winchester Web site (, Martin Zombeck can be found at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, where he is a physicist. E-mail: