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Internet Untruths and Urban Legends
Posting Date: 08/22/2011

Betty Haines

I've observed that many folks, who aren't normally fooled by tall tales, half truths, and out right lies, readily believe anything and everything that they see on Internet; all too often I hear folks say, “It’s gotta be true. It was on the Internet” or similar phrases. Another thing that I find perplexing is the cavalier attitude many folks have with regard to forwarding things, they see on the Internet, without making any effort to check the validity or source of the data. This practice has become so common place that it has spawned a phenomenon referred to as Urban Legend.

Urban Legends are fictional or inaccurate stories that are passed from person-to-person via Internet; some have been circulating for years. Unlike scams, these legends make no attempt to separate you from your money; they are created and circulated by pranksters and/or by misinformed people who believe that passing these stories along is helpful. When an unsuspecting person receives one of these stories from someone they trust, they usually share it; thus, a legend is born and becomes widely believed. Urban Legends are usually about something that would be hard to disprove; they contain just the right balance of believability and shock to be appealing.

Example 1: A friend, who knows that I'm a fan of Bill Gates, forwarded me a message that contained a list titled 11 Things You Didn’t Learn in School. The message identified Gates as the creator and went on to say he created it to use in a speech he gave at a California high school graduation ceremony. I was quite impressed by this list and wondered why I had not previously heard anything about it. So, I did a little digging into the matter. Wow! Did I ever get a huge surprise. Bill Gates is not the originator of this list. The true author is Charles Sykes. He included it in his book titled Dumbing Down our Kids – in 1995. Surely, Charles was pleased that Bill Gates mentioned his work in a speech; however, I imagine the pleasure turned to ashes (and lost profit) when some jerk carelessly posted, on the Internet, that Bill Gates was the creator of it.

Was this an honest/careless mistake? Probably. Should it be considered a “harmless” prank? Well, it sure isn't harmless for Charles Sykes. Put yourself in his shoes. He invested a great deal of time and talent in the creation of an excellent book that includes some impressive advice. Understandably, he expected that all accolades and profit resulting from his creation would belong to him; yet, Internet postings identify Bill Gates as the author of this list. Some of these postings have been floating around the Internet since 2003. Those who pass it along are guilty of helping turn an Internet untruth into an Urban Legend.

Example 2: A cousin of mine forwarded me an email message and suggested that it was very important; therefore I should share it with all my friends

and family. This, undated message stated that a college student, had escaped the clutches of a convicted rapists by calling *77 from her cell phone. The message continues by describing how a rapist, impersonating a police officer, attempted to pull her over; she kept driving and used her cell phone to call *77 and report the incident to the police. As a result of this action, she was rescued by real cops. The message equates calling *77 from (and I quote) ANY cell phone with calling 911 from a land line.

My first instinct was to share this information; luckily, I ignored that urge. I paused and recalled a lesson that my Daddy taught me when I was a gullible child. Back then, I would instantly repeat everything I heard and Daddy would admonish, “Whoa there; you can’t un-say your words; so, think first - speak or write later.” I did a little research and discovered that this is an Urban Legend. It has been floating around the Internet since 2001 and, between 2001 and 2010 (the latest information I could find), the following variations have occurred:

·The name of the student name has changed from Lauren. – to Lisa, from Lisa to to Lois, and from Lois back to Lauren.

·The student was driving in Virginia – Arkansas - Dorset, UK - Montreal, Canada – Australia.

·The number that the student called was *77, #77, 112, 999, or 000.

Unfortunately the above legend is far from harmless; it can result in harmful, perhaps even deadly results. For that reason, I want my readers to be warned that calling emergence services from a cell phone is not to be taken lightly; nor is as simple as one may think. Wireless and cell services are provided by multiple vendors; these vendors use differing equipment and software technology. They employ people with varying levels of technical knowledge, skill, and dedication to their job. Additionally,they offer an wide variety dialing plans and services packages which require the use of different symbols and numbers to activate them. Their employees may or may NOT understand and/or be able to accurately explain these packages and their proper usage to you.

During my research, I spoke to 4 cell phone service vendors regarding the proper use of *77, and I received 3 different responses – two of which were completely contradictory. Since, I was unable to get a definitive answer about calling *77, I strongly suggest that folks check with their local police department regarding the best way to reach them when using a cell phone to report an emergency.

For my Mesquite readers: I spoke with a Lieutenant Tanner of the Mesquite Police Department. He said that dialing *77 from a cell phone doesn't not connect callers to the Mesquite Police Department or the Nevada Highway Patrol. His recommendation for reporting a local emergency situation is to dial 911 from land-lines or cell phones.

Betty Haines writes college curriculum on Customer Service and Business Management; she is the author of the fiction novel “Reluctant Hero” about the civil rights movement in southern unions; it is available at www.amazon.com and www.bettyfreemanhaines.com

 

Commentary
  • Posted Date: 09/02/2011
    Betty, I love this article. I have snoped and used other tracking agencies to verify most of the political emails I have received. I think maybe 1 or 2 at the most (out of probably a couple hundred), have been fairly accurate. The balance have been totally false. I must admit... I was getting paranoid... thinking there was a conspiracy. Your writing has helped me to clear that up. Thank you very much for your clarity on Urban Legend!
    By: Steven Carter
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