Hoaxes gain new life on the Net

Computer virus message, $250 cookie recipe among hottest rumors

By Ryan Robbins

A young boy dying of cancer has a final wish: to collect as many business cards as he can.
There's a computer virus embedded in an e-mail message on the Internet that will infect your computer if you simply read the message.
A cafe has charged a man $250 for a cookie recipe.
Quick, tell everyone you know.
These stories and others like them arise around office water coolers, school lunchrooms, or the counter of your neighborhood. They may be humorous or horrible. They may contain a grain or bushel of truth, but are probably lies. And they make good stories, which is probably what provides the impetus for retelling them again and again in the same or mutated form.
And do-gooders on the Internet beware. Your computer is not immune from the spread of these fictions, whether they are hoaxes or have become urban legends. If it sounds too awful to be true, it probably is.
April Fool's Day on the Internet could be just about any day. And unfortunately, a lot of people who receive an urgent e-mail or read an urgent message in their favorite newsgroup don't know they may become unwitting participants in pranks that never fail to grab a few gullible people every time.
Jason Lavoie, a network engineer for Maine InternetWorks in Bangor, says MINT receives about a half dozen complaints or queries about hoaxes from customers each week. Lavoie said "Good Times" is the most common hoax he's come across.
According to "Good Times," there's an e-mail message floating around on the Internet titled "Good Times" that, when opened, will instantly infect the reader's computer with a virus.
Beware, one warning says, "if the program is not stopped the computer's processor will be placed in an nth-complexity infinite binary loop."
The problem is, there's no such thing as an "nth-complexity infinite binary loop," and there's no way a virus could infect your computer if you simply read an e-mail message.
But it sounds technical enough to be real that a lot of ordinarily sensible people are tempted to forward the message to as many people they can. Little do they know that by forwarding such warnings they become part of the only virus that exists -- the rapid mass mailing of the hoax to friends, co-workers and family.
"I doubt if there is a living person who is so terribly and completely skeptical that they have never believed a story that later turned out to be one of these folks' tales," said Edward " Sandy" Ives, a University of Maine folklore professor.
The hoaxes have become so much of a problem that the U.S. Department of Energy has seen fit to combat them with a World Wide Web page dedicated to debunking virus myths.
In addition to computer virus warnings, urban legends are also popular on the Internet.
Lavoie said "Internet Cleaning Day" is probably second to "Good Times."
Depending on which version of the cleaning day legend you believe, every Feb. 29 or April 1 all computers connected to the Internet must shut down for a day so robotic programs can purge the network of electronic debris.
Two other popular urban legends on the Internet are those of a dying boy's wish and an expensive cookie recipe.
In 1989, Craig Shergold, a boy from England, had a cancerous brain tumor. The Children's Wish Foundation announced that Shergold wanted to break the Guinness Book of Records' mark for receiving the most get-well cards. Two years later Shergold broke the record, receiving 33 million cards. In March 1991, Shergold underwent successful brain surgery. The cancer hasn't returned.
However, Shergold's wish for receiving the most get-well cards has made its way onto the Internet. And along the way his wish has somehow mutated into that of wanting to collect the most business cards.
In the Neiman-Marcus Cookie hoax, a man and his daughter ate at Neiman-Marcus Cafe in Dallas. After eating a Neiman-Marcus cookie and finding it delicious, the man asked a waitress for the recipe. The waitress said it would cost him "two-fifty." Fair enough, the man told the waitress, add it to my check.
When the man received his VISA bill the next month he discovered that the cafe had charged him $250 for the cookie recipe. He called the cafe's accounting department and disputed the charge, but to no avail.
"I just said, 'OK, you folks got my $250 and now I'm going to have two-hundred-fifty dollars' worth of fun,'" one version of the hoax says. A recipe for the cookies is at the end of the message, which ends, "This is not a joke -- this is a true story. That's it. Please, pass it along to everyone you know, single people, mailing lists, etc...."
And a hoax was born.
Nobody knows where such urban legends come from, Ives said.
"I don't think, frankly, that they are ever started as straight hoaxes," Ives said. "The important thing really isn't how it started, but the fact that it gets perpetuated. It's always something that happened to a friend of a friend."
Ives said he doesn't think the Internet is any more susceptible to urban legends and other hoaxes compared to word of mouth or print. "The Internet is just simply another medium for passing a story on," he said.
Lavoie said MINT doesn't have a policy to address its customers' passing on hoaxes.
"We don't encourage it," Lavoie said. "We try to nip it in the bud. We believe in kind of educating our users about that kind of stuff."
When MINT customers inquire about a hoax they're given information that describes the most prevalent hoaxes. Lavoie recommends that Internet users who receive urgent e-mail encouraging them to "pass it on" should check with their Internet service provider first.
And what of those who fall prey to hoaxes and forward them to others?
"They're kind of embarrassed but then happy to have been told the story about it," Lavoie said. "They pretty much think it's funny."

The address for the U.S. Department of Energy Computer Incident Advisory Capability, the place where you can find computer virus hoaxes listed, is http://ciac.llnl.gov/ciac/CIACHoaxes.html and the address for the AFU and Urban Legends Archive is www.urbanlegends.com

This story originally appeared in the April 1, 1997, edition of the Bangor Daily News. Copyright 1997, Ryan R. Robbins.