ScamBusters’ Top 10 List of History’s Greatest Internet Hoaxes

Check out these Internet hoaxes in honor of History’s Greatest Hoaxes Week: Internet ScamBusters #127


Since this is “History’s Greatest Hoaxes Week,” we decided to create ScamBusters’ Top 10 List of History’s Greatest Internet Hoaxes for this issue.

Let’s get right to it…


ScamBusters’ Top 10 List of History’s Greatest Internet Hoaxes


In honor of “History’s Greatest Hoaxes Week,” we’ve compiled our (unscientific) Top 10 List of History’s Greatest Internet Hoaxes. Long-time subscribers will be familiar with many of these — but there are a few new ones we’ve never written about before. Several of these hoaxes will make you chuckle:

10. Shark attacks helicopter hoax

In August 2001, an exceptionally popular email hoax made the rounds with a photo of a shark supposedly leaping up to attack a British navy diver hanging from a helicopter ladder, and was dubbed National Geographic’s “Photo of the Year.” The email said:

— Begin email hoax

AND YOU THINK YOUR [sic] HAVING A BAD DAY AT WORK!!

Although this looks like a picture taken from a Hollywood
movie, it is in fact a real photo, taken near the South African
coast during a military exercise by the British Navy.

It has been nominated by National Geographic as “THE photo of
the year.”

— End email hoax

Of course, the photo was fake — it was spliced together from a U.S. Air Force photo by Lance Cheung, which was taken near San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, and a photo by South African photographer Charles Maxwell of a breaching great white shark.

You can see the photo and read more here.

9. Neiman Marcus Cookie Recipe

Did Neiman Marcus really charge a customer $250 for a cookie recipe? There are many variants of this hoax — you can see two examples of the Neiman Marcus email here.

8. Alabama legislature changes the value of Pi

This is one of our very favorite hoaxes:

The April 1998 edition of the New Mexicans for Science and Reason (NMSR) newsletter did include a parody titled “Alabama Legislature Lays Siege to Pi.”

This article told the story of how the Alabama state legislature supposedly voted to change the value of the mathematical constant pi from 3.14159 to the round number of 3.

The article was posted to a newsgroup on April 1, 1998, and that evening, the author of the article posted a confession to the newsgroup of his April Fool’s prank.

However, the original article spread like wildfire over the Net. Alabama legislators were bombarded with scientists and others who protested the fake law.

Many variants of this hoax claimed that the Alabama state legislature redefined the value of pi in order to bring it in line with “traditional values.”

The hoax claims that the Solomon Society, a traditional values group, instituted a letter-writing campaign to members of the Alabama state legislature to return pi to its traditional value, which they claimed, according to the Bible, is the whole number three.

Our favorite part of this hoax is that although it is completely bogus, it is similar to a real event that happened in 1897. The Indiana House of Representatives did, in fact, unanimously pass a resolution redefining the value of pi to 3. However, this bill did not become law — it died in the Indiana Senate.

Shall we repeal the law of gravity next? 😉

7. Beta testing software hoaxes

There are literally thousands of variants of this hoax. Perhaps the most popular is the Bill Gates email chain letter.

You receive an email forwarded from a friend that tells you:

Bill Gates is testing a new email-tracking program, and he wants your help. All you have to do is forward this email to all your friends… Here’s an example:

— Begin email hoax

… When you forward this e-mail to friends, Microsoft can and
will track it (if you are a Microsoft Windows user) for a two
week time period. For every person that you forward this e-mail
to, Microsoft will pay you $245.00, for every person that you
sent it to that forwards it on, Microsoft will pay you $243.00
and for every third person that receives it, you will be paid
$241.00. Within two weeks, Microsoft will contact you for your
address and then send you a cheque.

— End email hoax

… First off, email forwarding/tracking programs don’t exist. And even if they did, would Microsoft really pay you $200+ per email? That’s what they have software testers for.

The email asks, “What do you have to lose?” The goodwill of your friends and family, for starters!

Remember, any email that asks you to forward it to your friends is a scam. And, there is no technology to track the forwarding of non-html emails.

For another very popular example, the Microsoft AOL email beta test, visit now.

6. Low cost software hoaxes and scams

If you missed our recent issue where we answer a subscriber’s questions about low cost software hoaxes and scams, we recommend you visit this page now — it’s important.

5. Lottery scams

Number 5 on our list is lottery scams, especially international lottery scams. This is a topic we’ve written about extensively. If you aren’t familiar with lottery scams and foreign lottery scams, visit these two pages.

4. Overpayment hoaxes

There are many variants of this scam — the most popular being international sales of cars, trucks and other vehicles.

Here’s how it works: You list a vehicle or other large ticket item for sale. A scammer from oversees wants to buy it, often for more than you’re asking.

The scammer sends you a money order for more than the amount of their purchase (for some spurious reason), and you are supposed to send them back all or most of the difference. Often, it is related to international fees to ship a car overseas.

The money orders look very real, and are usually accepted as legitimate by banks. Unfortunately, the money order is actually fake, and you will lose the difference you’ve sent them in cash (after you deposited the money order in your bank account and it supposedly cleared), as well as the item you sold.

For more on overpayment hoaxes, visit these two pages: international car scams and check overpayment scams.

3. Phishing scams

Phishing scams are the newest type of hoax on our list, since they are only a couple of years old. Phishing scams have gotten increasingly sophisticated, and they are growing extraordinarily fast. They are one of the larger sources of identity theft.

If you’re not familiar with phishing scams, visit now.

2. Nigerian scam

We’ve written so extensively about the different variants of the Nigerian fee scam that we’ll just point newer subscribers to two pages on our website.  Here’s the second one.

1. Ponzi Schemes

We believe there is little question that the top ‘honor’ on this Top 10 list has to go to all of the variants of Ponzi (or pyramid) schemes. Ponzi schemes again topped this year’s North American Securities Administrators Association (NASAA) list of the Top 10 Threats to Investors.

Named after Charles Ponzi, known as the father of investor schemes, Ponzi scams work by promising very high returns to investors. They use money from new investors to pay previous investors. This leads to excellent testimonials — and everything goes very well for investors… for a brief period of time. However, the scheme inevitably collapses, leaving the vast majority of investors poorer.

The only people who consistently make money are the initial promoters. For more on Ponzi schemes, click here.

Finally, for more on hoaxes that didn’t make our Top 10 List, check out our Urban Legends and Hoaxes Resource Center. You can find out whether popular emails are true or just urban legends or hoaxes…

That’s it for now. Enjoy your week.