Email hoaxes are rife on the web, but with 30 percent of internet users claiming to have purchased something from a spam email, maybe the scams aren't as obvious as we first thought. Here's our round-up of the eight wackiest email scams that people really did fall for.

Most email hoaxes are pretty far-fetched. From a wealthy oil executive in a far-off land that wants to give you millions of dollars to a host of pretty girls waiting to meet you, most are obviously not for real.

Yet, millions of people every day continue to fall for them. And it doesn't matter how many times reports detailing email hoaxes gone bad or tales of spammers taking people for all they're worth are released, 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 email, it means a spammer can send a million messages, without the cost of paper and postage, and 5,000 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 email.

Here's our round-up of the top email 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 email 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 website, Bonsai Kitten, the product of MIT students. The idea was so outrageous, it spread like wildfire via email. Plenty of people fell for it, many begging animal-welfare organisations to help the small furry creatures.

Even the FBI investigated it. Perhaps it could happen, after all, you can miniaturise 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.

NEXT PAGE: sign a petition to ban dihydrogen monoxide

  1. They may seem crazy but millions fell for them
  2. Sign a petition to ban dihydrogen monoxide
  3. Money from Microsoft
  4. Start a nuclear war
  5. Even more scams and tips to spot a hoax email

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Email hoaxes are rife on the web, but with 30 percent of internet users claiming to have purchased something from a spam email, maybe the scams aren't as obvious as we first thought. Here's our round-up of the eight wackiest email scams that people really did fall for.

Sign a petition to ban dihydrogen monoxide

Email 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 tumours.

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.

Extreme technophobia: pop popcorn with mobile phones

With all the talk of mobile phone dangers, the idea of radiation from them being powerful enough to pop popcorn doesn't seem that far-fetched, at least on the surface. So, why wouldn't you believe the swarm of emails telling you to look at the incredible video of friends popping kernels of corn with their mobile phones?

The group allegedly did it by placing the kernels inside a ring of mobile phones that then rang at the same time. The result - the kernels popped wildly as the mobile phone owners shrieked in delight. It must be true - it was on the internet, and the video was fun to watch. The event set off a wave of imitators attempting to film themselves re-creating it or trying to disprove it.

Unfortunately, as you might expect, it was all fake. A company called Cardo Systems made the video to promote its mobile phone headsets. Cardo's CEO Abraham Glezerman later admitted that the phones were real and the popping popcorn was real, but the video was a composite, with the footage of the popcorn heated over a kitchen stove digitally dropped into the video of the folks with their phones. Guess the email about mobile phones that can cook eggs isn't accurate either.

NEXT PAGE: Money from Microsoft

  1. They may seem crazy but millions fell for them
  2. Sign a petition to ban dihydrogen monoxide
  3. Money from Microsoft
  4. Start a nuclear war
  5. Even more scams and tips to spot a hoax email

Visit Security Advisor for the latest internet threat news, FREE net threat email newsletters, and internet security product reviews

Visit Broadband Advisor for the latest internet news, reviews, tips & tricks


Email hoaxes are rife on the web, but with 30 percent of internet users claiming to have purchased something from a spam email, maybe the scams aren't as obvious as we first thought. Here's our round-up of the eight wackiest email scams that people really did fall for.

Bill Gates wants to give you money

Now Bill Gates is being very generous with his fortune now that he has retired from day-to-day work with Microsoft, you can even get your hands on some it by applying to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. But long before the foundation was created, back in the early days of the internet, emails discussing Gates' or Microsoft's willingness to fork over free cash was widely circulated. In fact they're still being forwarded today.

Snopes.com has a list of the urban legends circulating most widely and, despite the fact that Gates and Microsoft have been the subject of phony email alerts and hoaxes since the 1990s, they are still in the top 25 this month.

One version says that Microsoft wants to make sure Internet Explorer remains the dominant browser (which we're sure is true). All you need to do to help out and get money from Microsoft is to forward an email to your friends. Microsoft will track the email for two weeks, and you get paid for every person who receives it through you.

Among the attractive details is a list of differing amounts that will come to you depending on how many referrals you make, one version of the scam says the sender received a check for $24,800 (£12,400) from Microsoft!

Hold on a second. First, if tracking an email like that were even possible, privacy campaigners would be all over it. Oh, and did we mention that the technology to do such a thing probably doesn't exist? But if Microsoft ever really wanted to pay us just for forwarding an email, we're game.

NEXT PAGE: Start a nuclear war

  1. They may seem crazy but millions fell for them
  2. Sign a petition to ban dihydrogen monoxide
  3. Money from Microsoft
  4. Start a nuclear war
  5. Even more scams and tips to spot a hoax email

Visit Security Advisor for the latest internet threat news, FREE net threat email newsletters, and internet security product reviews

Visit Broadband Advisor for the latest internet news, reviews, tips & tricks

Email hoaxes are rife on the web, but with 30 percent of internet users claiming to have purchased something from a spam email, maybe the scams aren't as obvious as we first thought. Here's our round-up of the eight wackiest email scams that people really did fall for.

Launch a nuclear strike from your PC

In 2002, Symantec supposedly issued an advisory about certain email messages flying around the country about an "important virus to look out for".

The antivirus-software maker, which does issue warnings on real viruses, allegedly instructed internet users not to open any email with the subject line 'Launch nuclear strike now'. If you did open that email, you would inadvertently end up sending nuclear warheads winging their way toward the former Soviet Union. That's right, you could start your very own nuclear war while in your slippers and bathrobe.

Apparently opening the email would download a virus that would tell your PC to access NORAD computers in Colorado and instruct them to launch a full-scale attack on Russia and former USSR. Needless to say, the virus isn't real, Symantec didn't issue such a caution, and it should be painfully obvious that this one is a hoax. If that isn't clear to you, step away from your PC and don't ever touch it again.

Hello, I'm a lawyer in Nigeria - can you help me?

Let us guess: at one time or another, you've received an email from an earnest resident of Nigeria that starts with a hello and an introduction to the sender. The email then suggests that your help is needed to claim an abandoned sum of money in a foreign account, or something similar.

The message typically promises that you will receive a large amount of money if you simply send a smaller amount of money now.

You didn't fall for it, did you? These convincing missives, which may or may not be from Nigeria, are known as 419 scams (named after a section of the Nigerian criminal code that deals with fraud).

Wikipedia says most of them are advance-fee frauds or confidence tricks. Not only will you not get rich, but you'll also have a very hard time getting back any money you wire the sender up front. We're sorry to report that these types of scams, which are based on versions dating back to the early 1900s, are still popular - variants purporting to be from Russia, Spain, Nigeria and many other countries still pour into email accounts around the world.

If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

NEXT PAGE: Even more scams and tips to spot a hoax email

  1. They may seem crazy but millions fell for them
  2. Sign a petition to ban dihydrogen monoxide
  3. Money from Microsoft
  4. Start a nuclear war
  5. Even more scams and tips to spot a hoax email

Visit Security Advisor for the latest internet threat news, FREE net threat email newsletters, and internet security product reviews

Visit Broadband Advisor for the latest internet news, reviews, tips & tricks

Email hoaxes are rife on the web, but with 30 percent of internet users claiming to have purchased something from a spam email, maybe the scams aren't as obvious as we first thought. Here's our round-up of the eight wackiest email scams that people really did fall for.

'Video: watch Angelina Jolie's lips explode!'

No matter how many warnings are issued, people still click on dangerous and fake attachments that purport to be interesting photos or videos but actually turn out to be damaging viruses or Trojan horses. An early star of such email scams was Madonna. Paris Hilton certainly had her day, as did Lindsay Lohan. Poor Britney Spears is still holding strong in this category. But we have to say that in 2008, the uncontested star of creepy download offers appears to be Angelina Jolie.

As well as Ms Jolie's lips, 'Britney Spears and Brad Pitt Naked Video' (does Angelina know?), 'Jolly Jolie Sex Scene', and (with extra points for having both ladies in the same email) 'Angelina Jolie and Britney Spears lesbian sex tape' are among some of the most popular email titles we've seen.

Speaking of jollies, you'll get a lot more than that after nasty viruses trash your PC. (You know deep in your heart, don't you, that the invitation to click on racy photos/videos just opens nasty executable files for malware?) You won't be so jolly when you get the bill to rehab your computer.

Work virus

Though an obvious joke, the Work Virus hoax reported last year by antivirus company Symantec will likely bring a smile to any cube dweller's face.

An excerpt from the email tells the story: "There is a new virus going around called 'work.' If you receive any sort of 'work' at all, whether via email, internet or simply handed to you by a colleague...DO NOT OPEN IT. This has been circulating around our building for months, and those who have been tempted to open 'work' or even look at 'work' have found that their social life is deleted and their brain ceases to function properly."

Pure genius. We'll have to send this one to our boss.

How to spot a hoax email

Several resources can tell you whether an email claim you're interested in is a hoax. One is Hoax-Busters.org, which describes itself as the 'Big List of Internet Hoaxes'; another is Snopes.com, which specialises in urban legends and hoaxes, and a third is Hoax-Slayer.com. Check out any of these sites before you forward that next petition, chain letter, or crazy photo.

  1. They may seem crazy but millions fell for them
  2. Sign a petition to ban dihydrogen monoxide
  3. Money from Microsoft
  4. Start a nuclear war
  5. Even more scams and tips to spot a hoax email

Visit Security Advisor for the latest internet threat news, FREE net threat email newsletters, and internet security product reviews

Visit Broadband Advisor for the latest internet news, reviews, tips & tricks