Though social media has taken away some of its lustre, email is sure to go down in history as one of the greatest inventions in the history of communications.
And I am certain the first group to stand up and agree with me will be the scammers and hoaxers that have made such exemplary use of email. At one time, they had to work through your regular mail: slow and costly. Now, with email, they can beam their scams directly into your home and office, and in huge quantities.
I had thought the amount of spam I was getting had tapered off, but it appears I was just going through a lull. I recently got a fresh copy of one of the oldest hoaxes going around, that the government was about to start requiring stamps on email.
This particular hoax has circulated on the Internet since about 1999, warning that the federal government was about to quietly push a bill through the House of Commons that would amount to a five cent tax on each email you send. Like the best of hoaxes, it is something that sounds just believable enough: it’s even made it into the pages of the Washington Post and onto CNN.
It’s hard to put down the people who take this hoax at face value. It’s well crafted. Like any really good hoax, it has all the elements to make people want to believe. A government corporation wanting to make up lost revenue, faceless MPs determined to get a share of all that free communications passing around on the Internet, it’s all there.
Speaking of nickels, if I only had one for all the offers from people that want to send me money. The authors range from corrupt government officials, to victims of natural disasters and even people offering to name me as their sole heir, an inheritance worth millions, providing I would use it to “spread the word of god.” Wouldn’t it just be easier and safer to leave it to the church or religious mission of your choice?
My favourite though, had to be the one I received from a hit man, who had apparently been hired to kill me. He didn’t much care for the person who hired him, and apparently thought I was a good guy, so he was offering me a chance to outbid whoever wanted me dead.
Clearly, his research didn’t extend into checking out how much reporters make.
The Nigerian scam, as it is known, along with all the variants that have been spawned over the years, is one of the most popular scams on the Internet, even though the stories are so unbelievable. Still, statistics indicate that more that 50,000 people a year fall victim to the Nigerian scam. Some estimates place the scam as the third most lucrative industry in Nigeria, generating over $5 billion in the last 20 years.
Hoaxes and scams are nothing new. Nor do they only come by email — the venerable $250 Neiman-Marcus cookie recipe hoax predates the Internet by decades.
No doubt con men and tricksters have been around since early man developed the spoken word. Everyone gets taken in at one time or another. From all walks of life, your neighbour to the scientist in the laboratory.
In fact, scientists are responsible for one of the most famous hoaxes of all time. Not for creating it — though science has certainly created a few — but for believing that a motley collection of modern and ancient bones, human and chimpanzee, was the remains of a previously unknown stage in the evolution of man.
And they believed it for years. I even remember finding the Piltdown Man still described in an elementary school science textbook even though it had been discredited in the 1950s. (Yep, those were some old textbooks).
The list goes on and on, but they all have some things in common. They play on our emotions; on our sympathy for people in trouble, on our distrust of governments and corporations, on our fear of being harmed, or our dreams of an easy path to a better life.
Steve Kidd is the senior reporter for the Western News