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Internet hoaxes and cyber legends drain FBI resources

It took years for word to spread, one junior-high lunchroom at a time, about Richard Gere's ill-fated gerbil colonic. But it took only two shakes of a mouse's tail for the entire wired Western hemisphere to learn about the girl with the Afghani boyfriend who skipped town, leaving a note warning her not to fly Sept. 11 or to visit a mall Oct. 31 ...

By now, we already know the rest of the story by heart. At this point, even Ted Kaczynski has gotten the message not to stimulate our nation's economy on Halloween. It's become so familiar it's beginning to sound like the lead-in to a limerick: "There once was a man from Kabul ..."

Such tales are no laughing matter, however, to a beleaguered FBI that's been stretched thinner still by an estimated 10,000 calls in recent days from concerned citizens seeking to report — or get details about — an ominous tale the agency has already dubbed the "10/31 hoax."

Aided by local law-enforcement agencies, the FBI has been sidetracked "chasing down rumors when they should be chasing down [Osama] bin Laden's cells, but it's got to be done," says Clint van Zant, a retired top FBI profiler credited with identifying the aforementioned Kaczynski as the Unabomber.

Van Zant equates Internet hoaxers with the callow losers who pull their school's fire alarm. "They think, 'I can watch the ripple effect as this massive wave of fear moves across the country.' "

He believes he was among the first to come across the e-mail account of the Afghan guy who tells his ex not to fall into the Gap on Halloween. Recognizing it as a potentially dangerous cyber-legend, Van Zant says, he forwarded it to his former Bureau colleagues because of the "minute chance it had some plausibility."

Investigators contacted the woman whose name appeared at the bottom of the e-mail, only to discover — as any of us do when we attempt to trace such a message back to its source — that it came from a friend of a friend of a second-cousin's barber's brother-in-law, etc.

However, an FBI spokesman at the agency's busy headquarters in Washington, D.C., says agents finally managed to track down the dope who originally wrote and sent the Halloween mall e-mail that quickly made its way around the country.

"Hoaxes can be spread instantaneously with e-mail, but e-mail is traceable," he says, indicating that the bureau had to resort to the controversial practice of accessing private Internet service provider records. The message reportedly originated from a woman at an Anaheim, Calif., computer company.

"We aggressively investigate any warning we get and if it's determined the intent was malicious, we will prosecute," he says, adding that federal charges have already been brought in four cases of false anthrax reports, including some frat boys at the University of Mississippi who threw white powder on passersby, telling them they'd been exposed to the deadly bacterium.

The FBI spokesman, who refused to give his name (and, for the record, seemed to be losing patience at having to answer yet another hoax question), would not give any further details about the "10/31" investigation, referring instead to a three-sentence press release issued Oct. 15 and written in terse cop-speak.

"The FBI has conducted an inquiry into the source of this e-mail and determined that the alleged threat is not credible," the statement concludes. Glad that's settled.

But "10/31" is just the most widespread of the dozens of urban legends that have scorched across the Internet since 9/11. Some are harmless, even inspirational, such as the tall tale of the brave firefighter who suffered only a broken arm "surfing" 800 feet down through falling World Trade Center debris — a story repeated by several major news outlets.

A few messages employ deceit in service of black humor, in the case of the doctored photo showing a smiling tourist atop the WTC oblivious to the 757 behind him bearing down on the tower.

Other stories are more threatening, yet offer a glimmer of hope by suggesting a way of avoiding future tragedy, such as the rumor that Arabs have stolen hundreds of rental trucks around the country. As with the "10/31" e-mail, the implied message here is, stay away from any rental trucks you see and you'll be OK.

"These kinds of rumors work almost like a religion: You can be saved as long as you believe," says Aaron Lynch, author of Thought Contagion: How Belief Spreads Through Society. "People pass the idea on to those they want saved from such dangers, and to people who might owe them some appreciation for this 'life-saving' advice."

Lynch says stories that are vivid, gripping and emotional are more likely to be remembered and, consequently, forwarded to others, even if they seem far-fetched.

"In order for e-mails to spread, you only need a small fraction of people to believe it," he says. "One reason to retransmit it is to see what others think about it."

It doesn't help matters, he adds, that our standards of believability have been exploded by watching the World Trade Center collapse on live TV, hearing that the news networks have become large anthrax cultures and discovering that Bert is a devoted Muppet member of al Qaeda.

Still other rumors are embraced because they clearly advance a political agenda, often rooted in hate or prejudice, such as the notion that the Sept. 11 attack was masterminded by Israeli spies hoping to trick the U.S. and its military allies into eradicating Islamic fundamentalism.

That particularly toxic claim is supposedly reinforced by reports that more than 4,000 Jewish WTC employees were warned not to show up for work Sept. 11, an easily debunked story that is nonetheless popular among street-level Pakistanis, who, it should be noted, didn't get this urban legend off the Internet.

But, whatever the motive behind its origin, a rumor can't cause a disturbance unless others are willing to help pass it on. Ex-profiler Van Zant believes most of these Internet enablers mean well.

"People are honestly trying to help," he says. "They feel powerless and this is one way to gain control of their lives."


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