No... Janet Reno does NOT think that Christians are cultists!

Jul 2, 2000 (Updated Jul 10, 2000)

How to Spot Urban Legends and Hoaxes

I donít know how many people there are out there like me, but I often find that I am in the position where everyone that I know feels obligated to alert me of the latest "OH MY GOD!!" message that they have received. In most cases, I find out that the alert is actually an urban legend that has been perpetuated by people who didnít know any better. Whenever this happens, I always respond to the sender, who looks at me with amazement. They canít believe how smart I am.

Well, to be honest, Iím not really that smart... just more experienced.

The latest alert came from two different parties who were very upset by Janet Reno, who supposedly defined a "cultist" as "one who has a strong belief in the Bible and the Second Coming of Christ". As usual, this alert had the content of the message quoted and re-quoted so many times that it was practically unreadable by the time that I received it. In fact, it took several minutes to decipher what, exactly, was the big deal.

However, it took me two seconds to discover that this was a complete hoax, an urban legend passed on and modified into versions that accuse Bill Clinton and Kenneth Starr as making the same statements.

Now, how is it possible that I discovered the truth so quickly when obviously so many people were willing to believe the message? The answer is simple. I know how to spot and detect hoaxes; they donít. So, as a favor to friends and relatives alike, Iíll share my secrets.

Tip #1: If itís too stupid to be true, it probably isnít!

A long time ago, I received an email from a friend who wanted to tell me about some great deal. Microsoft was giving $1000 to anyone who forwards the email message to other people. The concept was that, by sending emails, these people were doing Bill Gates a favor by testing some new email tracking software. At first, I grinned. Jackpot! I thought. But then I thought about it some more. Why would someone promise to spend an indeterminate amount of money to test a software product? UmÖ geeÖ maybe no one did. (I have since received this same message approximately 4,315 times. I wonder how many more times I would have received the message had I forwarded it to someone else!)

Always look for breaks in logic before passing on an "alert". If the deal is too good to be true, it probably isnít. If it doesnít make sense, it probably isnít true either.

Tip #2: Look for things that enable the reader to verify the origin of the message.

In the last 5 years, I have received only one alarmist email that reported something that was a true concern. This email reported that someone was scalded by drinking freshly microwaved coffee from a ceramic mug. Having studied physics and chemistry in college, I felt that this report passed the logic test. But I was still dubious. Fortunately, the email also included the phone number and address of a lady named Melva at the Workersí Compensation Office in Richmond, Virginia. I called the number, and the phone was answered in a professional manner, "Workerís Compensation Center. Melva speaking." I had a very nice chat with Melva and verified for myself that the claim was real. (I then forwarded details of my conversation to friends who, as it turned out, had also called to check the credibility of the claim.)

The point here is that one must look for something that shows how the claim can be verified. The Microsoft email mentioned earlier is a prime example of something that could not be verified. There was no number to call for further details, and there was nothing that indicated how to collect the cash. If you cannot find an exact source of the claim or any concrete evidence that would allow you to confirm the claim, donít pass on the rumor.

Statements such as "I called myself, and itís true!" should almost never be considered evidence of validity. The exception is if you know the person who supposedly verified the statement AND if that person included an email address where they can be contacted.

Tip #3: Do some research!

Even after following Tips 1 and 2, one may still not be sure that a message is a hoax. The Janet Reno message that I received is a good example of this. The email referenced an episode of "60 Minutes" from June 26, 1999. The date could be used to indicate credibility, and since it has been a year since that date, it may be hard to easily verify that this actually happened. Thatís where legwork enters the picture.

Donít be afraid to check chain letters against the archives of reliable sources. I have compiled a short list of web sites that I consult whenever I receive one of these alarmist stories. I am listing them here so that others may benefit from the wealth of information that they offer:

The Urban Legends Reference Pages (

This web site is a veritable smorgasbord of information related to urban legends and rumors. The site is a hobby for the husband/wife team of Barbara and David Mikkelson. People throughout the world send them rumors and copies of suspicious emails, and they do extensive research to verify the credibility of the claims. Each claim is entered into a database and is marked with a status of "True", "False", or "Undertermined". In very special cases, rumors are marked "True, but..." to qualify the claim. (For instance, Crayola crayons DO contain asbestos, but not enough to cause any problems.) Users can then check on the veracity of rumors by entering keywords into the search engine. This site has, by far, the most extensive and complete information available and is always the first place that I turn for hoax related advice. The search quickly returned an entry for the Janet Reno email and provided an extensive explanation of why the rumor cannot be true.

CIAC Internet Hoaxes (

The Computer Incident Advisory Capability site contains a great deal of information about chain letters and virus hoaxes. This was the first place that I saw the information about the "Flesh Eating Bananas Hoax", and this wasnít until after a friend told me that I shouldnít let my daughter eat bananas (and quite frankly, scared me silly) because of some disease.

Urban Myths (

This site has a large collection of chain letters and other urban myths. The database here is not as extensive as that on The Urban Legends Reference Pages, but it is still pretty good. One humorous aspect of this site is that they annotate chain letters. Some of the results are really funny.

Hoaxkill (

Occasionally, I turn to Hoaxkill. This site contains more information on virus hoaxes than on urban legends but is still useful.

Symantec AntiVirus Research Center (

This is one of the greatest places to look for information about virus hoaxes. This typically has a list of the latest virus hoaxes being circulated. A search engine is also provided to check out older virus hoaxes.


Hopefully now, you have enough information in your hands to check out bogus claims. You also know that drinking freshly nuked coffee from a ceramic cup is dangerous, Bill Gates is not going to pay you to test his email tracking software, and there is no flesh-eating virus on bananas. OhÖ and Janet Reno does NOT think that Christians are cultists.

Now YOU can look like the really smart person when someone sends you one of these claims!

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