Newspaper with magnifying glass
Home Special Features How Mainstream Media and Public Officials can Fuel Urban Legends

How Mainstream Media and Public Officials can Fuel Urban Legends

by Brett M. Christensen

In September 2014, I wrote an article debunking a circulating warning that described a criminal tactic in which chemical-laced 100 dollar bills were supposedly being left on car door handles. The message claimed that the chemical made drivers immediately pass out when they touched the note, thereby allowing criminals to kidnap and assault them. 

The circulating warning had no credibility. In fact, it was just a rehash of much older urban legends.

But, my article on the warning later saw a sudden spike in visitors.  Why? Because a November 2014 item from US media outlet ABC News warned readers about a somewhat similar version of the $100 note story.

The report discusses a tactic in which criminals put a hundred dollar bill on a car windshield and then carjack the driver when he or she gets out and tries to retrieve the note. The headline and introductory text imply that incidents of such scams are actually being reported. But a closer read of the story reveals that the would-be warning is based purely on hearsay.

The report explains that Karen Straughn, Maryland Assistant Attorney General – Consumer Protection has publicly warned local residents about the scam. But where did Straughn get this information? ABC notes:

Straughn said an unknown resident, during a public information safety session in Baltimore County, informed her of one incident, but Straughn said she has not seen a police report about it.

Hardly compelling evidence! The ‘unknown resident’ could well have derived the information from an email or social media post about the earlier urban legend.

The fact that the resident remains ‘unknown’ and no actual cases are cited suggests that Straughn made no effort to substantiate the claim. Instead, she just regurgitated it as an official warning with no evidence whatsoever that such crimes are actually taking place. In other words, she gave a totally unsubstantiated report passed on by word of mouth by an unidentified person completely undeserved credibility by airing it as an official warning.

The ABC News article then acknowledged that:

A spokesman for the Prince George’s County Police Department said there is no record of this scam taking place in that area.

Unfortunately, many people tend to skim read news articles and may come away believing that incidents of the crime have actually been reported and continue to happen.

This sort of journalism is irresponsible. While it is understandable that the ABC might wish to report on a warning delivered by a public official, their article should have made it clear via the headline and introductory text that there were no substantiated reports of such crimes actually taking place.

But, in this case, ABC should only shoulder part of the blame. It is even more irresponsible for a trusted public official to issue such a warning without first finding out of the story has any substance.

The car-jacking scheme outlined in the email is not implausible. It is possible that criminals could use such a method to steal a car from an unwary victim.

But, in reality, the $100 bill warning is clearly derived from much earlier warnings that claimed that criminals were placing pieces of paper on car windows as a means of stealing cars.

Supposedly, when victims get in their car and go to reverse out of the parking space, they notice a piece of paper stuck on their back window. So, they get out to retrieve the paper and awaiting criminals jump into the car and take off. In essence, the very same tactic as described in the $100 bill warnings.

These warnings have now been circulating for more than a decade. And police have repeatedly dismissed the warnings as untrue.

Bottom line? There is already enough nonsense and misinformation circulating the interwebs. The last thing we need is for such nonsense to be given undue credence by supposedly respectable news outlets and public officials who should know better.



Importance Notice

After considerable thought and with an ache in my heart, I have decided that the time has come to close down the Hoax-Slayer website.

These days, the site does not generate enough revenue to cover expenses, and I do not have the financial resources to sustain it going forward.

Moreover, I now work long hours in a full-time and physically taxing job, so maintaining and managing the website and publishing new material has become difficult for me.

And finally, after 18 years of writing about scams and hoaxes, I feel that it is time for me to take my fingers off the keyboard and focus on other projects and pastimes.

When I first started Hoax-Slayer, I never dreamed that I would still be working on the project all these years later or that it would become such an important part of my life. It's been a fantastic and engaging experience and one that I will always treasure.

I hope that my work over the years has helped to make the Internet a little safer and thwarted the activities of at least a few scammers and malicious pranksters.

A Big Thank You

I would also like to thank all of those wonderful people who have supported the project by sharing information from the site, contributing examples of scams and hoaxes, offering suggestions, donating funds, or helping behind the scenes.

I would especially like to thank David White for his tireless contribution to the Hoax-Slayer Facebook Page over many years. David's support has been invaluable, and I can not thank him enough.

Closing Date

Hoax-Slayer will still be around for a few weeks while I wind things down. The site will go offline on May 31, 2021. While I will not be publishing any new posts, you can still access existing material on the site until the date of closure.

Thank you, one and all!

Brett Christensen,
Hoax-Slayer