No Fear

Education prevents spread of viral urban legends


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.
"Return" to sender

     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 kanable@charter.net.

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.

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