by Todd Spangler, Associated Press
PITTSBURGH (AP) - If you know where to look, who to
talk to, whose Web site to read, the news can be
terrifying - and untrue.
Poison perfume being sent through the mail. A
beverage beloved in America linked to Osama bin Laden.
Business travelers getting drugged and waking up to
find their kidneys are gone.
The conspiracy-minded have long fueled their
anxieties with stories in grocery store tabloids and
on the Internet, where rumors, myths and urban legends
are recycled with the villain du jour. And the new
bogeyman, unsurprisingly, is the terrorist.
"It seems like there's an increase of them at the
moment," said Barbara Mikkelson, of suburban Los
Angeles, who debunks Internet myths on a Web site she
runs with her husband. "What happened Sept. 11 shook
up everyone as to what is possible."
Urban legends have been around a long time - a
popular tale was that gang members would drive around
with their lights off and kill any motorist who dared
flash his lights at their car. But terrorists are now
cast as the rumored villains, tapping into people's
legitimate fears of attacks and governmental
In recent weeks, for example, the Pennsylvania
State Police has been hearing a rumor that seven women
died after inhaling a perfume sample mailed to them by
Not only is it unverifiable, it's not even
original, a variation of the "knockout perfume" myth
which has been in circulation since 1999. In the
earlier tale, robbers used ether-tainted perfume to
knock out their victims.
"They're kind of like a boomerang. They come out
now and they come back in two years in a slightly
different version. They don't go away," said Sgt.
Raymond Cook, of the state police's criminal
While urban legends and Internet myths are more of
a nuisance than anything else, they can consume law
enforcement time and energy. Bill Carter, an FBI
spokesman, said no statistics are kept on how many
false reports are investigated, but, in the wake of
anthrax scares across the nation, most every threat is
Sometimes, the threats even seem to come from
Last month, the Harris County Attorney's Office in
Houston started receiving hundreds of inquiries about
the poison perfume scare. It turned out an employee
had received an e-mail about the rumor and sent it out
to friends - with the Harris County attorney's e-mail
That, to many people, made the report seem valid.
County workers had to run down the rumor and squelch
Even more damage can be done when a business is
tied to terrorists. That happened last year when false
reports spread that Snapple - the flavored iced tea
company - was owned or linked to Osama bin Laden. It
got so bad the chief executive officer issued an
Internet memo saying Snapple had no ties with the
"We got tons of phone calls and tons of inquiries.
People were upset for no reason," said Steve Jarmon, a
spokesman for Snapple, which is own by London-based
Cadbury Schweppes. "It was an uncontrolled rumor
spiral. It took months and months of hammering at it
to turn it around."
The rumors themselves can run from something
straight out of "The X-Files," such as the one about
business travelers being drugged at hotel lounges and
then having their kidneys harvested while they're out
cold. Others are patently absurd, such as a fake memo
from bin Laden addressed to "cavemates" and
complaining that someone stole his cheese
Often, the urban legends aren't deliberately
invented but are cases of "misremembering or
misinterpreting" items seen on TV or read somewhere,
Mikkelson and Dr. Frederic Neuman, with the Anxiety
and Phobia Center in White Plains, N.Y., said the
rumors themselves are not harmless, causing people who
are already nervous to become more so.
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"They compromise our sense of safety," said
Mikkelson. "They convince us that every shadow needs
to be jumped at and a terrorist is lurking inside each