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About the "Hoax du Jour"

The "Hoax du Jour" is a recurring column providing updated information and commentary on the Internet community. It is a feature of Korova Multimedia's "e-v-mail" page.

What is a "hoax du jour?" With the advent of widespread use of the Internet as a medium for sharing information, the phenomenon of sharing misinformation has exploded. Conventional urban folklore and propaganda have blossomed on the Internet. Intentionally misleading information is broadcast on a professional and personal level.

On the Web, misinformation wants to be free. It also likes to be free of authenticity and corroboration, when such grounding deflates the credibility of the content.

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November 28, 1998     

When I started this column in 1997, I was interested in targeting specific "net lore" which seemed to be designed to mislead and frighten online users. Virus hoaxes had already become common after the Pandora's Box of "Good Times" had been unleashed in 1994. Since I published a debunking of the "AOL Cookie" hoax, I expanded my interest to instances of semi-factual information which had been altered (either intentionally or through careless retelling). The illegal practice of "Phone Slamming" was presented on the Sacramento, CA, nightly news as a "recent" danger, though it had been going on for years. The "90# Phone Scam" alert was purported to work on all phone lines, not just PBX systems (and I continue to get misplaced contention from visitors to this site on that fine point). These are cases in which a little bit of information, and a healthy dose of misinformation, make a much better story than the plain truth.

Visitors to this page have often shared their latest cyberban legends with me (thank you!), which are amusing, but not always a prime topic for Hoax du Jour. It has been interesting to note that a proto-online UL like the "Labor Day Gang Initiation" scare of 1993 took months to spread by fax, but the immediacy of the online world today can suck a known urban legend through everyone's mail servers in a matter of a days.

What I generally try to address here is online information that is intentionally misleading.

Still, there are times when an urban legend (UL), presented online, can have alarming results. The "Toxic Tampon" hoax achieved fast notoriety: some women who received the "alert" were outraged. Fortunately, the "Toxic Tampon" alert was 90% hogwash. Here's another recent alert that I find troubling.

"Welcome to the world of AIDS"

A few weeks ago, one of the visitors to this page asked me about a net rumor he'd received, referring to AIDS-tainted needles left in pay phone coin return slots. In June, I'd received its sibling, a rumor of "college girls" being injected with blood from an attacker with AIDS in a Bombay movie house.

The stories are essentially false, though there are some seeds of truth (as noted in Barbara Mikkelson's superb articles about these ULs). The core UL, "AIDS Mary," (documented in Jan Brunvand's Curses! Broiled Again!) has been around since the 1980s. "AIDS Mary" portrays a vengeful prostitute who has sex with unsuspecting victims, and then leaves behind a dramatic message: "Welcome to the world of AIDS."

The recent variants cast a man as the villain, and "college girls" or "schoolgirls" as the victims. While dancing at a disco or rave, victims would feel a "prick" or stab, and later find a note or sticker that read "Welcome to the AIDS club," or the attacker would present a card. (Unlikely variants asserted that the AIDS virus was on tiny pins under the sticker itself.) Lately, the supposed victims have been attacked at a more innocent venue such as a movie theater.

(Let's not discount the possibility of someone doing this as a copycat prank. Similar copycat behavior has followed Halloween poisoning ULs, and the infamous Tylenol poisonings.)

Barbara Mikkelson makes the point that the symbolic "innocent victim" represents the "we" in the tale. The more innocent and blameless the victim, the more tragic the tale. Certainly, a "college girl," as chaste and naive as they come, is the ideal Ophelia. Her young life will be ruined before it's even begun, through no fault of her own. Oh, the horror.

Seeds of Truth?

There have been incidents that provide some mythical origin to the current scarelore. In 1989, some young girls in New York City were terrorizing women, sticking them in the neck with needles and running away. Ha, ha. A year later, a NYC man was shooting darts at women in "provocative clothing." In the years since, there have been several incidents of schoolchildren pricking classmates with needles and lancets as a joke,... and thieves brandishing allegedly tainted needles. According to Mikkelson's research, these cases have never turned up with truly tainted needles.

Two disturbing HIV injections incidents turned up in my research. In 1990, a prison inmate in Australia (diagnosed with AIDS) did actually attack a guard with a hypo containing his blood. Both the inmate and his victim eventually succumbed to AIDS. Recently, a hospital phlebotomist (a technician who draws blood) was convicted of first-degree assault for injecting his son (11-months old at the time) with HIV-tainted blood. The boy eventually contracted AIDS. According to the prosecution, the father's alleged motive was to avoid child support payments.

Most of these reports do not add up to the same circumstances alleged in the current ULs. In neither of the confirmed incidents is the attacker a "bogeyman" stranger, nor are the motives apparently "retribution" for having contracted AIDS. But in the melting pot of urban legends, these facts have provided great ingredients for a paranoid stew.

An argument could be made that these ULs are close cousins to the familiar Halloween scarelore of poisoned candy, and apples with razor blades. The ULs about razor blades in apples seem to have really soared since about 1967, but many of the factual reports may've been hoaxes based upon the UL. Poisoning incidents may also have been copycat cover-ups based on the UL. All this, of course, went downhill fast with the notorious Tylenol murders of 1982. The results of the Tylenol murders (and subsequent copycat product-tampering poisonings) are plain to see: tamper-proof packaging is everywhere. Additionally, Halloween candies are individually wrapped. The "AIDS Mary" UL simply carries on the motif of a deranged murderer "poisoning" random, innocent people; it's dressed up in more recent, inflammatory lingo. (Further links courtesy of Barbara Mikkelson's Urban Legends Reference Pages.)

The latest "AIDS needle in the pay phone" variant alters the model a bit. The attackers are no longer some vindictive, diseased deviants; in one version they're "drug users," who can presumably afford to discard their used needles.

The Urban Legend Modus Operandi

All of these variants of the "AIDS Mary" UL have implicit messages:

  • Strangers are out to "get you"
  • You can't trust anyone anymore
  • The world isn't a safe place
  • You can't be TOO CAREFUL

Clearly, in the discotheque variant of the "AIDS Club" UL, places like raves and discos are risky venues for young people to foray into. Later, even movie theaters are too risky; you'd better stay home and watch TV, okay? Young girls, protective of their blossoming bodies, are endangered by nefarious elements (boys, men) who lie in wait at discos and drugged-out dances (orgies).

The danger of being "pricked" with a tainted needle simply amplifies the common fear that a momentary fling, even sharing a crowded dance floor with strangers, can invite permanent, disastrous consequences. As one warning stated in early 1998, "The world isn't safe anymore."

The Victimless Folktale?

In my opinion, these offspring of the "AIDS Mary" UL are a very real danger in themselves. Most folktales are simply cautionary stories, told to inspire fear or shared revulsion. The "AIDS Club" legends have had documented effects on dance clubs. Mild hysteria erupted in Montreal as a result of the UL, and clubs in Toronto and San Diego have reported reduced business after the appearance of unfounded warnings of needle attacks.

These stories do more harm than that. Most of the variants are based on the concept of a vengeful AIDS carrier using sex or needle attacks to "get back" at the opposite sex. That this is a prejudiced assumption is obvious. What's really disturbing is that the bugaboo here is not the virus itself, but some vague "they," patrolling discos and movie theatres with evil intent. But who are "they?"

The idea that AIDS patients may also be murderers is ludicrous. AIDS is no longer the "gay cancer," nor is it a punishment visited upon the sinful by an angry (and sexually conservative) God. It's a disease. Those who test positive for HIV do not "deserve it." Further, those who test positive do not necessarily undergo an ethical epiphany and set out to infect others as "retribution." In fact, few (if any) diseases would inspire such a change in someone. To brand AIDS patients (victims of a deadly disease) as a "they" who are lurking in discos, movie theaters and even phone booths, leaving traps for the rest of us, is repulsive.

Something Wicked This Way Comes

So why the scare? Are these ULs an expression of revulsion at the AIDS epidemic? Probably. Are they a biased way of "punishing" those who have AIDS? Perhaps. In the same way that old women are often portrayed as hags and witches in fairy tales, these ULs would make us believe that catching AIDS is similar to becoming Darth Vader.

These "harmless warnings" can do some real harm. They pervert our perception of those who have contracted a deadly disease. They make us think of AIDS patients as the dangerous "Other" who should be shunned, avoided, distrusted.

Those who test positive for HIV, and contract AIDS, are our brothers and sisters. They need our help. They need our understanding. They need us to read crap like the "AIDS Needles" warnings and delete them without a second thought.


April 8, 1999     

The popularity of various "AIDS Needles" ULs has been growing, with some versions containing references to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) for authenticity. Well, the CDC released a statement that it just ain't so.

CDC casts doubt on infected-needle reports
Reuters/CNN March 25, 1999
Web posted at: 12:01 PM EST (1701 GMT)

"Some reports have falsely indicated that CDC confirmed the presence of HIV in the needles," the centers said in a statement. "CDC has not tested such needles. Nor has CDC confirmed the presence or absence of HIV in any samples related to these rumors.

"The majority of these reports and warnings appear to have no foundation in fact."

"... CDC is not aware of any cases where HIV has been transmitted by a needle-stick injury outside a health-care setting," it said.

As to pay phones in particular, I've been deluged with requests for information on this latest warning:

From: 911 Operator--Tina Strongman

Hello, this is to warn every one of a new thing happening in communities as a gang initiation and such. If you care about anyone, please forward this to them immediately so they can learn of the possible harm. Even if you don't read this, at least forward it to people.

Hello, my name is Tina Strongman and I work at a police station, as a phone operator for 911. Lately, we've received many phone calls pertaining to a new sort of problem that has arisen in the inner cities, and is now working it's way to smaller towns. It seems that a new form of gang initiation is to go find as many pay phones as possible and put a mixture of LSD and Strychnine onto the buttons. This mixture is deadly to the human touch, and apparently, this has killed some people on the east coast. Strychnine is a chemical used in rat poison and is easily separated from the rest of the chemicals. When mixed with LSD, it creates a substance that is easily absorbed into the human flesh, and highly fatal. Please be careful if you are using a pay phone anywhere. You may want to wipe it off, or just not use one at all. If you have any questions, you can contact me at the links listed below. Please be very careful.

Let your friends and family know about this potential hazard. Thank you.

Tina Strongman
Email -
Phone # - 246-3425

According to David Emery (The Mining Company's Urban Legends and Folklore Guide), this is a hoax that was mutated by some smarty pants who registered the Hotmail e-mail address as an "experiment." From the beginning, there doesn't appear to have been anyone named Tina Strongman. The corroboration of a "free-mail" address doesn't make this one any more true. Barbara Mikkelson also confirms that this story's a ringer.

Your immediate clues are that the phone number is incomplete, and "Tina's" e-mail address isn't an official domain, but with a freebie e-mail site. If "Tina" was a dispatcher for a local PD, well,... she wouldn't be sending out an alert ANYWAY. It would be disseminated in a more official manner.

The element that the drugs are left on the phone's buttons reminds me of some alerts that circulated throughout law enforcement last year, alleging that (1) drugs or (2) nerve toxins were being left on the door handles of police cars. Barbara Mikkelson has an excellent page on the Ricin warnings; I wouldn't discount the possibility that this latest warning is a copycat hoax crafted from the "AIDS Needle" UL and the "Ricin" alerts.

What makes this one more interesting to me is that in the previous "AIDS Needles in Pay Phones" story, the villains were drug addicts working nationally in some kind of collusion. Now the poisoning of pay phones is attributed to gangs. Boy, it's getting dangerous out there ... if you believe these ULs.


July 31, 2001     

Reality seems to be imitating hoax. In the past couple of years, I've come across a isolated reports of foreign objects found in food. Sad to report, there are rare incidents of food service workers caught and prosecuted for doing various ugly things to food being served to customers. I read an account of burger preparers "skating" across the kitchen floor on frozen beef patties, then frying them up for customers. Bodily fluids (spit, or worse) are one of the things these punks put into fast food. Reading the details would make you swear off fast food for the rest of your life. (I have.)

This report from New York goes beyond comprehension, if in fact it's not a rigged attempt to extort the restaurant. And it's notable for this topic in that it seems to be a copycat stunt based on the hoaxes I discussed in 1998.

'McNeedle' Mom Fears AIDS
July 27, 2001; NY Post

July 27, 2001 -- A Manhattan mother of three is terrified she's been infected with the AIDS virus after biting into a McDonald's cheeseburger - and being speared by a 21/2-inch needle, she claims.

Ana Perez, 35, was eating at the McDonald's inside the children's department at Macy's Herald Square when, she claims, she felt a sharp pain in the middle of her tongue.

... Speaking in Spanish translated by her 11 year-old daughter, Maria, Perez said the real agony of her ordeal is just beginning - she now has to wait for the results of an AIDS test she took at the hospital.

The ironic twist to this story is that there's no indication that the needle might be tainted with HIV or AIDS, other than what Ms. Perez might've heard as an urban legend. No doubt, hospital personnel may've tested her for a variety of problems arising from a "needle stick" incident. But the victim, and the news-hungry media, appear to have jumped on the "fear of AIDS needles" buggaboo. Hey, it sells newspapers.

David Spalding

(A grateful doff of the pith helmet to Karl145, David Emery (The Mining Company), Doug Voelker, and Barbara Mikkelson (snopes.com) for various reports and research.)

© Copyright 1998 D.B. Spalding/Korova Multimedia. All rights reserved.







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