The urgent e-mails usually come with a warning: "Beware, this is a true story."
Then the story unfolds: A woman gets into her car in a parking lot, starts the engine and shifts into reverse. As she backs up, she notices a piece of paper, some sort of advertisement, stuck to the rear window and blocking her view. She shifts into park and gets out to remove the leaflet, leaving the engine running. As she walks to the rear of the car, carjackers appear. They jump into the car and speed away with her purse, keys and identification.
At the end of the message, Detective Bledsoe of the Florissant, Missouri, sheriff's office and Lieutenant Tony Bartholome of the Missouri Highway Patrol confirm that the incident happened in St. Louis County and urge motorists to take precautions, particularly around the holidays. It also gives an address and a telephone number for more information. But as it turns out, it is entirely made up.
Urban legends - those weird stories that seem to take on lives of their own as they travel from person to person - have likely been around for centuries. But in the last decade, the Internet has added a new, more encompassing dimension to the spread of false rumors. Fictitious e-mails designed to warn, generate laughter, provide inspiration or sometimes solicit money from recipients pour into computer inboxes every day, tying up servers and slowing down employees who spend time reading, deleting or sending junk e-mail rather than working.
Despite software designed to filter unsolicited e-mail, most people have yet to figure out an effective way to rid their computers of spam - those annoying bulk e-mails from unknown senders offering great deals on everything from Rolex watches to Viagra. They can add to the dozens of e-mails from people they know who spend hours, often with good intentions, sending out poems, prayers, chain letters and stories of schemes and lurking dangers.
According to those who monitor such e-mails, traffic picks up around the holidays with people sending warnings, such as the Missouri carjacking alert. Another busy time is around political election season. The biggest jump, however, occurred after the September 11 terrorist attacks.
Deborah Williams, 50, owner of Leadership Edge, a management consulting company based in Atlanta, said despite the spam filter on her computer, about 50 unsolicited e-mails get through each day. In addition, she receives 12 to 15 warning letters and what she calls "life and wisdom" e-mails that she considers worthless.
"I hate it," she said, adding that she spends 15 to 45 minutes a day sorting through unwanted e-mails. "It is wasted time and it's annoying. I can come back from an out of town trip and have 400 messages waiting, and only about 30 are relevant."
For more than two years, variations of the carjacking e-mail have made the rounds, landing a spot among the top 15 urban legends on the Internet, according to Snopes.com, a Web site dedicated to sorting out whether a story is true or false.
Warnings targeting women are at a high point this year, said Barbara Mikkelson, who with her husband, David, has investigated more than 300 e-mail urban legends a year since starting Snopes.com in 1995.
"These e-mails are reflections of what we feel is happening in society, our fears and anxieties. It's not that women are being abducted and raped more or that both sexes are becoming victims of violent crimes more, it is a way of expressing to our friends that here's the stuff we are worried about," Barbara Mikkelson said.
Bill Orvis, senior security specialist with the U.S. Department of Energy's Computer Incident Advisory Capability Team, which monitors Internet hoaxes, said most people make up the e-mails for fun.
"For some people it's just a prank. They want to know if they make up a cool story, how far it can go," said Orvis, who maintains hoaxbusters.ciac.org, an Energy Department Web site.
Police in Springfield, Illinois, last summer were bombarded with calls after a false e-mail began circulating in state offices, hospitals and other public buildings. The e-mail - another national favorite - alleged that a woman was approached in a Wal-Mart parking and asked to sample some perfume. When she agreed, they sprayed her with ether, which caused her to pass out. They fled with her wallet. Police said the incident never happened.
The Florissant Police Department received so many inquiries about the alleged carjacking in its city that the chief issued a news release last summer dismissing the report.
"I want to put an end to this rumor. The City of Florissant has not had any incidents of this nature!" Police Chief William Karabas said in the news release.
Karabas said he has no idea how his department ended up in the e-mail. Experts, however, said that often an officer sometimes innocently forwards an e-mail to friends and the police department becomes attached to it as the official source. Karabas said the e-mail apparently started with a group of teachers and quickly spread among the more than 50,000 residents in the St. Louis suburb.
Orvis, who was hired by the Energy Department to monitor hackers and malicious code violators, said the department got into the hoax-busting business in 1995 after receiving calls about questionable e-mails that were circulating. Rather than answering all the calls, the agency established a Web site where he publishes the truth about investigated e-mails.
While most of the e-mails are harmless and well-intentioned, Orvis said, some have been circulated for political reasons or as marketing ploys. An e-mail, for example, was circulated among blacks last year warning that their voting rights would expire in 2007 if Congress did not renew the Voting Rights Act. Voting rights are granted for all Americans under the 15th Amendment to the Constitution, not the Voting Rights Act.
Businesses have had to engage in damage control to ward off false e-mails calling for boycotts against them, Orvis said.
In one case, Starbucks Coffee was falsely accused of refusing to send coffee to U.S. Marines in Iraq. It was falsely reported in e-mails that designer Tommy Hilfiger was kicked off Oprah Winfrey's show after saying his clothes were made for "upper-class white people." The e-mail was so widely circulated that Winfrey debunked the rumor on her Web site.
"Sometimes these are started by competitors, but often when we get to the backend of the investigation, it tends to be someone who genuinely misunderstood or misheard the story," said Barbara Mikkelson. "The real magic is how it is transmitted. In each story, there is something that someone can identify with and that prompts them to want to pass it along."