Congratulations, you won the lottery in a country whose name you can't even pronounce! A wealthy oil executive in a far-off land wants to give you millions of dollars, right now! Sexy girls want to meet you!
Now let's be honest. If someone came to your door and told you any of those things, you'd tell him to get lost. So why do people still fall for this stuff when it's in their e-mail, as if a poorly written message made a weird-sounding pitch any more legitimate?
The saddest part is, the only reason annoying e-mail keeps filing your inbox is because it works. No matter the number of reports detailing e-mail hoaxes gone bad and tales of spammers taking people for all they're worth, people just keep on clicking.
Why? It's the law of percentages. The response rate for snail-mail spam is between 0.5 and 1 percent. That might not sound like a lot, but if you apply it to e-mail, it means a spammer can send 1 million messages--without the cost of paper and postage--and 5000 to 10,000 people will answer. In fact, a study out this month indicates that nearly 30 percent of Internet users confessed to purchasing something from spam e-mail.
In 100 years, the spam boxes on our brain-implant chips will be maxed out, and we'll still be asking: Who's clicking on this stuff?
Here's a list, in no particular order, of the top e-mail hoaxes that have come through inboxes and fooled millions.
Raise Bonsai Kittens in Bottles
It's amazing how many people were willing to believe this e-mail about a breeder in New York who raised kittens in bottles. Perhaps it's the horrible detail that outraged the recipients so much: The small animals are given a muscle relaxant to pacify them and to allow the breeder to get them in the bottle. They're fed through straws. Their skeletons take on the shape of the bottle. "Latest trends In New York, China, Indonesia and New Zealand." A bizarre case of animal cruelty? A sick joke?
Actually, it started as a fake Web site, Bonsai Kitten, the product of MIT students. The idea was so outrageous, it spread like wildfire via e-mail. Plenty of people fell for it, many begging animal-welfare organizations to help the small furry creatures. Even the FBI investigated. Perhaps it could happen--after all, you can miniaturize a tree by pruning it and shaping it. But cats? Last time we checked, it's more or less impossible (not to mention probably illegal) to stop an animal from growing simply by keeping it in a small container.
Sign a Petition to Ban Dihydrogen Monoxide
E-mail alerts outlining the dangers of dihydrogen monoxide swept the Internet in the late 1990s and still pop up today. Many ask that you sign and forward a petition to ban the chemical, which contributes to global warming, is a major ingredient in acid rain, causes metals to rust more quickly, and has been found in cancerous tumors. The chemical also contributes to the greenhouse effect and to erosion of our natural landscapes. It's even in food. Sounds pretty dangerous. You're ready to sign right now, aren't you?
Well, let us tell you one more thing about dihydrogen monoxide: It's more commonly known as water. You know, the substance that every single living being relies on to survive? The origins of this item are multifold, from flyers circulated at the University of California at Santa Cruz in 1989 (so 20th century!) to a junior high school student who surveyed 50 classmates in 1997 and got 43 of them to sign his petition to ban the chemical. He then won a prize at his science fair for his project, called "How Gullible Are We?" Several Web pages touting the chemical's dangers are still live. Don't feel too bad if you've ever fallen victim to this hoax; even a government official in New Zealand took the bait last year.