When word spread that Mikey from the LIFE cereal commercial died after ingesting Pop Rocks with soda (his stomach exploded), there was considerable concern. Yet, the "news" about Mikey wasn't the kind of urban legend, or hoax, that caused citizens fearing for their own safety to contact law enforcement. Instead, they just were a little more cautious when they ate Pop Rocks. WiredSafety.org executive director Parry Aftab says this explosive tale is an example of an older urban legend.
The idea that Pop Rocks and soda could cause serious bubble trouble sounded plausible.
Before an urban legend is passed down, it must seem to somewhat make sense — and tap into an existing fear or a plausible fear, says Aftab, whose senior thesis centered on rumor mongering and its effects on business.
When almost everyone was afraid of the Internet, e-mails warning about viruses were popular, points out Aftab, who wrote about this in her book A Parents' Guide to the Internet, published by SC Press in October 1997. People at that time had heard there were viruses and malicious codes. When someone sent an e-mail warning of a virus coming in just by opening an e-mail — without an attachment, that was scary, she says.
"E-mails warning of viruses moved very quickly because they were important — if you couldn't open e-mail, then you couldn't use e-mail," she recalls.
Today urban legends are more focused on security and less innocent, she describes. As consumers, law enforcement officers, like everyone else, need to know when something is real or not — and how to discern that.
"You're going to get people who will call the station and panic … this isn't good for anyone," Aftab says. "You will need to be knowledgeable about threats and direct people to make good decisions."Nashvillians receive hoax e-mail about gang activity
When a hoax e-mail about gang activity was making the rounds in Nashville, Tennessee, the police department addressed it front and center on the department's home page, www.police.nashville.gov:
"A hoax e-mail is presently circulating through Nashville warning people to be aware of increased gang activity and random shootings. The Metropolitan Nashville Police Department's Gang Unit has determined that the e-mail has no validity. Hoax e-mails on crime issues are common in the United States. Citizens can refer to the Web site www.snopes.com to dispel many myths and urban legends."
The Nashville hoax had been making the rounds in Davidson County, Tennessee. The police chief and the mayor's office were getting deluged with citizen inquiries, and the media was asking questions.
"We were just getting inundated with this one particular e-mail," says Capt. Todd Henry of the Specialized Investigations Division, which includes the gang unit.
Ignoring the urban legend wasn't an option because it became so popular in Nashville and the surrounding areas. Since the hoax was primarily being spread by e-mails, putting a notice on the department's Web site was one way to communicate with citizens in cyberspace. The notice was also e-mailed to council members and the community coordinating sergeants in each precinct (each sergeant then has community crime watch groups to e-mail). And, the police department issued a traditional press release as well.
"Most urban legends somehow get personalized," Henry says. "It's not like a spam e-mail from somebody you don't know. It's an e-mail from somebody you do know. Once you look down the chain of e-mails, it seems like you got it from a friend, who got it from a friend, who got it from a friend — and then it's somewhat personalized: 'my brother works for the police department or the government and here's what they say …' You tend to believe that your friends wouldn't lie to you."
People think they're doing a good thing by forwarding an e-mail with a friend's safety in mind, but what the e-mail does is help blow the story out of proportion, he says.
Another urban legend in Nashville mentioned a local news reporter as a source. When the reporter found out, he contacted Henry to do a story and confirm the fact that the e-mail mentioning him was a false story. In the news report, people interviewed on the street commented that including the reporter's name in the hoax added credibility to the e-mail.
"When you think something is true, it lends you to change the way you live your life," Henry says. For example, if people think there's danger in the mall parking lot or a store, then they likely would avoid those places.
Henry has seen many versions of the gang activity hoax, which seemed to have come from Memphis. In a city the size of Nashville, it doesn't take long before 200,000 to 300,000 people are saying gang members are attacking single women in parking lots or gang initiates have to shoot or kill someone in a mall parking lot to join a gang, he says. By the time it hits that level of distribution, he says, "we have to go to the media and try to calm everybody's fears."
None of the examples Henry just gave were true in Nashville, but he says national and local news and cable TV shows about gangs and gang issues have heightened awareness about them. "If there's a little bit of truth within the e-mails that circulate, people tend to believe what the e-mail says and send it out to others," he says.
After the police department issued the notice and press release addressing the latest gang activity hoax, fears were calmed within a week or two and the police department received fewer inquiries.
"If your police department gets inundated with e-mails about an urban legend, you can't go out and say there are no gang members going to parking lots and shooting innocent people," Henry explains. "You don't know what a gang banger is going to do, especially if he wants to be in a gang, believes the urban legend and thinks that's what he needs to do to get in. All you can say is based on all your intelligence, your information gathering, you have found no evidence that the allegations in this e-mail are true."
For some reason, he says "Urban legends just seem to make a circle — with some of the same ones coming around about once a year. And who knows where they'll surface again."Communications urban legends
Propagating a good urban legend requires a focus on something people think a lot about, and Joseph Farren, assistant vice president of public affairs for CTIA-The Wireless Association, says with 255 million wireless subscribers in the United States today, cell phones fit the bill.
From time to time, Farren gets calls from mainstream media outlets, asking whether cell phones can open car doors or blow up gas stations. (Neither has been documented.)
Regularly, he fields questions about a wireless do-not-call registry to keep cell phone numbers from being released to telemarketers. People can do this, but he says wireless numbers aren't handled the same as landline numbers. Farren explains: "First and foremost, wireless carriers don't publish customers' names and numbers. No one has a list. Second, it's illegal to contact a wireless phone using an automated dialing machine, which most telemarketers use."
Another communications urban legend that is popular today is about calling #77 on a cell phone. The legend states that dialing this combination will connect you to highway patrol dispatchers in whatever state you are in.
That legend is mostly false, says Dallas Hayden, who manages Embarq's Investigations and Law Enforcement Support functions within Corporate Security. Embarq, which offers local and long distance home phone service, high-speed Internet, wireless capabilities, and satellite TV, issued a press release to help educate consumers about communications urban legends. "Calling #77 in some states may connect you with that state's highway patrol, but it doesn't work everywhere" he says. "Other states use codes such as *77, #55, *47 or *HP, and some states have no emergency cell phone code at all."
Hayden, who retired after serving 26 years in law enforcement at the Office of the Inspector General, advises customers that if they have a highway emergency, the best approach is usually to call 911. When traveling to another country, it's best to ask what the emergency number is there.No longer threats
Sometimes urban legends drop out of circulation. For example, urban legends about e-mail viruses aren't as popular as they used to be.
With updated antivirus software, protection is available against viruses, malicious code and trojan horses, but Aftab reminds the key is keeping antivirus software up to date. Then, if there's a new risk, the makers of antivirus software protect their customers from the latest threats with automatic updates. To check for the latest threats, visit Web sites like McAfee's www.mcafee.com/us/threat_center/default.asp.How to detect an urban legend
With other urban legends and hoaxes being spread widely and in many variations, the truth sometimes can be difficult to find.
Aftab points out hoaxes have three main ingredients: they could happen, they touch something people know or think is true, and they feed on fear.
Pennsylvania State Police, in an information brief addressing urban legends, suggests:
- The best way to tell a hoax or prank is to reply to the sender and ask them if it's true. If they can't tell you, then it's probably not true.
- The more urgent a message sounds, the more skeptical you should be.
- Check Web sites (urbanlegends.about.com, snopes.com, www.scambusters.org) to see if the story is listed there.
Reasons why people share urban legends can vary.
Some people share urban legends because they think it would be hysterical to send an e-mail and see how many people will panic as a result, says Aftab, a security, privacy and cyberspace lawyer. "People who send urban legends on a lark are usually teens with nothing else better to do," she says. "But they need to be stopped because they have a lot of influence with their widespread e-mails."
Others mean well but they don't realize what they're sending might be an urban legend. People who share urban legends as true stories because they don't know otherwise, should be encouraged to look on the Web to see if the story is true. Law enforcement agencies can create a link on their Web sites to a Web site addressing urban legends or to www.wiredsafety.org, which is set up to help victims of cyber abuse.
"There's a lot of bogus information that can move very quickly on the Internet," says Aftab. "It's very viral, no pun intended, and a lot of misinformation and hype. It's always been a cop's job to act as a gatekeeper between what's real and not real when it comes to risks in their community."
This is no different, she says noting law enforcement protection today must go beyond the mall, the schools and the office parks to cyberspace, cell phones and other communication technologies.
"When people in the community are afraid because they think something is going to go wrong, we need to make them not afraid," she says.
Rebecca Kanable is a freelance writer based in Milton, Wisconsin, who specializes in writing about public safety issues. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.Urban legends defined
Urban legends are unverifiable stories comprised of outlandish, humiliating, humorous, terrifying or supernatural events — that always happened to someone else, describes the Pennsylvania State Police Bureau of Criminal Investigation in an information brief: "In lieu of the truth, the teller of an urban legend relies on good storytelling and the citing of an 'authoritative' word-of-mouth source, typically 'a friend of a friend.' Like traditional folklore, urban legends are repeated many times and tend to undergo several revisions as they are recounted."
Typically urban legends are shared via e-mail. In 2002, Pennsylvania State Police pointed to the urban legend about seven women dying after inhaling a poisonous perfume sample that was mailed to them by terrorists. The report was unverifiable and a variation of the "Knock-Out Perfume" urban legend, circulating since 1999. In earlier versions, criminals used ether-tainted perfume to knock out their victims before robbing them.Rumor or hoax?
The difference between a rumor and a hoax is that while hoaxes are planned fakes, rumors may be believed and innocently passed on. But once a hoax is passed on by people who believe it, it becomes a rumor.
— Source: wiredsafety.org
National Emergency Number Association (NENA) Government Affairs Director Patrick Halley reports 99 percent of the population nationwide has 911 — less than 100 counties nationwide do not. In these counties, he says you can dial 911 and the call will be answered somewhere, but not necessarily by the local, geographically appropriate public safety answering point (PSAP).
Ninety-seven percent of the population has E-911, in other words, when you dial 911, the call goes to the correct PSAP and the telephone number and address of the call are displayed. Ninety-two percent of wireless subscribers and 74 percent of the counties have Phase II wireless E911, which means the call is routed to the correct 911 center and a callback number and estimated location is available.
Halley says the goal is to get all of these percentages to 100.
While it's more of a misconception than an urban legend, Halley says it's important to clear up the misconception that wireless 911 is the same as wireline. In comparison, wireless, because of inherent technical and physical limitations, needs to get more accurate, he says. Only estimated locations are available for wireless calls. Cell phones are mobile devices without fixed addresses, either a GPS or network triangulation estimate a phone's location, which can be narrowed anywhere from 15 to 500 meters. Wireless 911 also cannot provide apartment numbers or floors.
"We also want to get our 911 system to be able to accept any communication that an individual would otherwise use as a regular method of communicating," Halley says. "That's not what our current 911 system was designed for. We're trying to migrate the 911 system to an IP-based 911 system capable of receiving voice, video and text. Today we can take a picture with our cell phone and share it with all of our friends at the click of a button, but you can't send it to 911, where it would be beneficial to see a crash scene or what a suspect looks like."
Equipping a 911 center with newer technologies could be especially beneficial when receiving emergency calls from people who are deaf or have speech disabilities, he says.
Halley encourages law enforcement to be involved in planning and transition efforts to move to an IP-based next generation 911 system, because he says, "That's where the future is."