Rumor Detectives: True Story or Online Hoax?

Giant dogs? One-winged airplanes? Death by Pop Rocks? Sounds like a case for

By David Hochman from Reader's Digest | April 2009

Anatomy of an Urban Legend How it starts, where it spreads, and how Snopes takes it down

1. The buzz begins In early May 2008, Snopes begins getting e-mail alerts warning of criminals using funny-smelling business cards soaked in a drug called burundanga as a way to incapacitate victims. The forwarded message cites an incident that happened “last Wednesday” to “Jaime Rodriguez’s neighbor … at a gas station in Katy.”

“We noticed we were getting more and more inquiries on this from people searching our site,” David says, “and since burundanga was something we had never written about, we decided to tackle it.”

2. The big dig The Mikkelsons start investigating. With few hard details—Katy, Texas? Katy, Missouri?-Snopes goes to its favorite sources: medical journals, police blotters, newspaper archives, and contacts in law enforcement cultivated over the years. Sometimes, says Barbara, “you have to pick up the phone.” Until the rumor can be confirmed or debunked, it will be listed as “undetermined” on Snopes. Says David, “We like people to know we’re working on something even if we don’t have an answer.”

3. The story spreads After a few days, the burundanga rumor picks up momentum and becomes one of the most-searched-for items on Snopes, which receives close to a thousand inquiries a day about it. “The stories that rise most,” says David, “are those that pose a threat to readers.” Across the Web, people forward the e-mail as a public awareness effort that the Mikkelsons dub slacktivism-sending a warning without putting in any effort to see if it might be true.

4. The verdict With inquiries surging, Barbara spends several days on the case and determines that burundanga is a South American plant extract containing alkaloids that, at high doses, can indeed cause delirium and unconsciousness. But there are red flags. Burundanga has no scent, and it must be swallowed or inhaled to produce the described effects. Moreover, there isn’t a single police report or news mention of an incident like this. If burundanga crime rings were really a problem, “the news would be awash in stories about such incidents,” Barbara says. Snopes lists the rumor as “false.”

5. The comeback After quieting down over the summer, the story resurfaces in October after police officers in Canada and England forward the e-mail to fellow officers to ask if it is real. Those e-mails then circulate with the officers’ signature blocks attached, giving the tale new credibility. Adding to the confusion, a November version of such an e-mail concludes, “This has been fact-checked out on, and this is true.” As David says, “People will do just about anything to believe a story they want to believe.”

6. The myth dispelled By early 2009, the burundanga rumor is sliding down the list of the Hot 25 rumors on Snopes. Inquiries dwindle to a couple hundred a day. “It’s bubbling under,” David says. “But these things can pop back at any time. Most rumors never die completely.”

Heard This One? Snopes sets the record straight on which high-circulation tales are myths and which are actually (sort of) true.

Money from Uncle Bill

Rumor: Internet users can receive cash rewards from Bill Gates by forwarding an e-mail message to test a Microsoft tracking system. Origin: A hoax circulating since 1997, the Gates story is still thriving in various forms. One claims, “For every person you forward this e-mail to, Microsoft will pay you $245.” Snopes report: “Totally false. It’s a made-up claim, probably started as a joke. But since it promises easy cash, people believe it.”

Deadly Flyers

Rumor: Would-be carjackers are placing flyers on the back windows of cars as a way to lure drivers out of vehicles. Origin: On the Snopes radar since 2004, the alert is part of a tradition that fuels paranoia about danger around every corner. See also: ankle slashers at the mall. Snopes report: False. “Nothing rules out there having been one car theft carried out in the manner described, but we have yet to hear about it.”

Wal-Mart Behemoth

Rumor: An e-mail provides eye-popping statistics for the retail chain, claiming Wal-Mart shoppers spend $36 million every hour, every day. Origin: Unclear, but it began circulating online in late 2008. Among the many claims: Wal-Mart is the largest company in the history of the world. Snopes report: Mostly true. Snopes discovered a few other shockers: that Wal-Mart customers, for example, spend an average of $42,754,109 every hour.

Missing Ashley Flores Rumor: A 13-year-old Philadelphia girl named Ashley Flores has been missing for two weeks. Origin: The text of the e-mail—making the rounds since 2006—includes a photograph, a Yahoo e-mail address, and a sad plea from the missing girl’s father, a “deli manager,” who writes, “If anyone anywhere knows anything, please contact me.” logs roughly 1,000 requests a day from users wondering whether the claim is true. Snopes report: Complete hoax. The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children has no report of a missing child named Ashley Flores.

Snopes also cites phrases (“If anyone anywhere knows anything,” for instance) taken word for word from previous missing-child hoaxes such as reports on Kelsey Brooke Jones and Christopher John Mineo.