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Beware 5 common Internet urban legends

By Michelle Solomon, Contributing writer
Published On: Jul 09 2011 10:03:27 PM HST
Updated On: Apr 26 2012 08:00:00 PM HST
Computer user with mouse and keyboard

iStock / DOConnell

If you've got an email address -- and who doesn't these days? -- chances are you've received the occasional cautionary tale that just has to be true because it happened the emailer's father's brother's nephew's cousin's former roommate.

Those foreboding stories most often turn out to be little more than urban legend, but are spread easier than ever before thanks to today's technology.

Stories of organ harvesting, gang initiations, secret cookie recipes and terminally ill children are some of the most common subject matter in email chain letters.

Many times these emails do not go directly to your spam folder because they are sent from a trusted friend whose heart is in the right place.

So the next time your friend Bob or your aunt Jane tells you to SEND THIS TO EVERYONE YOU KNOW, do everyone a favor and don't!

For the sake of saving us all, here are the top five most circulated Internet urban legends, and how long they've been around.

Car driving on darkened road

No. 5: Out go the lights

Known as the "Lights Out" legend, this one advises readers to heed this warning: If an oncoming car doesn't have its lights on, do not flash your own head lights, or risk death.

The email goes something like this: "Please spread the word. A police officer I know that works with the DARE program at my son's elementary school is warning drivers to not flash their lights at night to oncoming cars without their headlights turned on. This is a common gang member initiation game."

The email goes on to say that the gang member is instructed to then turn around and kill the first helpful driver who flashes their lights.

Snopes.com, the quintessential source online for true and false urban legends, said this rumor actually started in 1993 using the same idea, but with Hell's Angels biker gang in California as the perpetrators.

It's most likely not a gang member with his lights off, just another knucklehead driver sharing the road with you.

perfume bottle spraying

No. 4: The knockout perfume

Another email cautionary tale of woe concerns strangers in mall parking lots who ask the unsuspecting to sniff ether-laced perfume.

This is another read this or "fear death" legend. If the person actually sniffs the perfume offered by the pesky strangers, they will pass out, be stuffed in the trunk of a car, and robbed and beaten.

In 1999, Mobile, Ala., police supposedly received a claim from a woman who was "rendered unconscious after smelling an unknown substance" by someone who approached her in a bank parking lot. She told them when she awoke, she had been robbed. Blood tests found that she had no foreign substances in her body, so her story remains debated. This may be where this hoax began.

We don't know about you, but the same rule applies to people in a parking lot asking us to smell something as it does for those annoying people in the middle of the mall who want to clean our glasses or jewelry: Go away.

cans of Coke, Coca-Cola

No. 3: Don't drink Coke on (fill in the date)

There have always been stories of a kind stranger giving a tip to someone (usually an elderly lady) in line at a grocery store after she helps him pay his tab, but the "Don't Drink Coke" legend got a jolt of new life after 9/11.

This urban legend claims that Arabs working in a Coca-Cola factory have tainted the product to coincide with a certain date.

The email goes somewhat like this: "THIS IS TRUE or THIS REALLY HAPPENED! So and so's son works at Quickie Mart. There was an Arab man in line and he was $1 short for his groceries. An elderly woman gave him the dollar. He waited for her outside of the store and said 'You people don't do things like that for us so I'm going to do something nice for you.' He told her not to drink any Coke products on Sept. 11."

This particular version seems to have started in 2002. Coca Cola has received so many inquiries about it, they actually posted a response on their website.

Here's our response to this: Don't ever believe emails that say, "this really happened to me," or SHOUT IN UPPERCASE LETTERS: THIS IS A TRUE STORY!

Bill Gates, Microsoft

No. 2: Free money, honey

There are more than a few of these emails that circulate around, tempting the reader to share in the wealth by "participating" in a company beta testing.

The promises of free cash, free cell phones, free trips to Walt Disney World, free computers and more are bogus, no matter how many emails you forward to friends and family.

Companies have plenty of ways to test out products. Tracking how many email messages you forward to friends is probably not the best use of resources for a company the size of Microsoft anyway.

The letter began circulating in 1997 and was sent from Bill Gates himself (allegedly). Bill proceeds to tell the reader that he has just "written up an email tracing program" and he needs your help (even if your name is John Doe or Joe Schmoe). Bill Gates needs your help to test his program and if YOUR email reaches 1,000 people, everyone on your list will receive $1,000 of his money.

Even today, the "free cash email" continues to circulate, sometimes from "Bill Gates," but many times just from some "really lucky person" who actually "made a fortune."

Man looking at the sky, religion

No. 1: No more prayer

In one of the newest legends to hit the Internet highway, a very "American Christian" proceeds to warn you of your freedom being taken away after President Barack Obama "decides there will no longer be a National Day of Prayer."

The appalled emailer says "this country was built on freedom! Send this to everyone you know who believes freedom is your right!"

So here's the real skinny. In 2009, Obama halted only the National Day of Prayer official service held inside the White House. Former President George W. Bush had hosted the service each year during his tenure. But Obama did make a proclamation recognizing the day, as he also did in both 2010 and 2011.

Congress established the day in 1952 and in 1988 set the first Thursday in May as the day for presidents to issue proclamations asking Americans to pray. It was actually a federal judge in Wisconsin who initially ruled the National Day of Prayer was unconstitutional in April 2010.

The Justice Department appealed that decision to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, which found in April 2011 that the observance is indeed constitutional.

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