Wednesday, 10 October 2007

E-mail scares # 1: Medical

Hoax e-mails are a staple diet of those who tend to swallow urban legends whole. Numerous variations have done the rounds in South Africa in the past two decades. The major categories of these scares are AIDS and medical scares, drugs warnings, "unusual crime wave" warnings, technology scares like warnings about mobile phones, and political scares, such as the death of Mandela sparking a bloodbath.

These categories will be addressed here shortly, but to start with, here is a sample of AIDS and medical scares:

AIDS and medical scares

"Welcome to the world of AIDS": man wakes up in hotel room the morning after meeting a woman in a bar and finds the message scrawled on the bathroom mirror in lipstick.

The stolen kidney: Variation on "Welcome to the world of AIDS", starts with man meeting woman in bar, ends with message on hotel mirror saying, "Call 10111 or you will die". He has had his kidney removed during the night. The 2007 version was first sent out from a Netcare employee (as was the Storm warning e-mail).

Virgins cure AIDS: Young girls are being raped because of a belief that sleeping with a virgin can cure AIDS. Both the scare and the belief are urban legends.

The AIDS revenge: A group of angry women or a lunatic male is going around the city injecting passers-by with a needle carrying AIDS-infected blood. This one started in New York but adapted fast to Johannesburg.

AIDS at the movies: AIDS-infected needles are being left on cinema seats. This one emptied cinemas in Cape Town for a few weeks in 1999.

AIDS in the change: AIDS-infected needles are being left in the coin receptacles where people reach in to collect change after using a public telephone booth or a pay-on-foot parking kiosk.

Poisoned plastic: A warning headed "Do not reuse mineral water bottles" claims that the plastic in these bottles contains a carcinogen. They are safe for one-time use, but repeated use leads to death, according to the urban legend.

Poisoned plastic in your appliances: The warning first came, according to the urban legend, from Johns Hopkins Hospital in the USA, and warns against plastic containers in microwaves,water bottles in freezers and plastic wrap in microwaves, since they release dioxins, which cause cancer. It would have been more believable had it not concluded: "This is an article that should be sent to everyone important in your life."

Diet cancer: Aspertame, the artificial sweetener used in diet cooldrinks, is alleged to cause cancer and numerous other severe health problems. This urban legend is supposedly backed up by vast volumes of documentation, and you will find emotive arguments for it across the Web.

There are many others, which you are welcome to share with me when you find them, but:

What to do when you receive an e-mail warning

If you don't want to learn how to spot a scam and re-educate your friends who send them to you, make your life easier by following these three simple rules:

1. Rule number one of e-mail:

Never, ever, send on chain letters or mass-mailed warnings.

2. Rule number 2 of e-mail:

If you receive a chain letter or mass-mailed warning that you feel is really, really important and that everyone really, really should read, refer to rule number 1.

3. Rule number 3 of e-mail:

If you seriously don't mind embarrassing yourself, and you feel that this e-mail is not really a chain letter because its contents are so vital, and there is no way something as trivial as good manners can allow you to stop yourself from spamming your address book, refer to rule number 1.

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