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.