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Guests Separate Truth From Urban Legend

Aired February 3, 2001 - 12:30 p.m. ET


BRIAN NELSON, CNN ANCHOR: Now it's time for our weekly interactive segment.

This week's topic is urban legends. They are sometimes stories with a bit of truth but often get exaggerated as they spread on the Internet or from person to person.

We're going to take your calls and e-mails in just a moment. But first, you may have heard about this one e-mail legend. It's a cancer patient's last wish. It's to set the world record for the most business cards received by anyone in the world.

The e-mail asks that cards be sent to the Make a Wish Foundation. The story was once true, but now it's fiction. The subject of this e- mail is Craig Shergold (ph), a real person who did have cancer. He really wanted to set a world's record by receiving greeting cards, but not business cards. He wanted greeting cards. His wish was granted years ago. But Make a Wish still receives loads, hundreds of cards.

And so where's the harm in this?

Joining us now from Los Angeles is Rich Buhler from the Web site, which looks into these so-called urban legends, and in Phoenix, Paul Allvin of the Make a Wish Foundation.

Gentlemen, thank you both for being with us today. This is an interesting topic, and I'm sure you're both eager to get to it.

What is wrong with these legends, first of all? What harm do they cause as they continue to circle the globe, sometimes in an expired format?

PAUL ALLVIN, MAKE A WISH FOUNDATION: Well, I can tell you that for the Make a Wish Foundation this has become a really costly and chronic distraction from our work to grant wishes to kids with life- threatening illnesses, because people will call and either go off a cliff and try to gather, in this case, business cards by the thousands and tens of thousands sometimes, and then come to us and have a great disappointment when they find out it's not a legitimate request, and that in fact, the Make a Wish Foundation was never involved in the original request in the first place.

Other people will call or e-mail the foundation and ask us if this is indeed a legitimate request. We get about 1,600 phone calls a month just in our Phoenix headquarters, and about 2,000 e-mails a month. And so it is a costly distraction for us to have to answer these questions and for all these thousands of people.

NELSON: Mr. Allvin, is Make a Wish Foundation any more victimized by this than other organizations?

ALLVIN: I don't know of another organization that has the problem to the extent that we do. There are at any given time a half a dozen or so active either chain letters that go around the Internet or are faxed around or telephone solicitations where people are trying to raise money and the people who are being called believe that they are being called by the Make a Wish Foundation when in fact we do not do telephone solicitation or telemarketing.

NELSON: All right. Let's bring in Richard Buhler. Mr. Buhler, how do you define what is an urban myth or an urban legend?

RICH BUHLER, TRUTHORFICTION.COM: Well, there are a lot of different kinds of false stories. Urban legends are generally regarded as something that stood the test of time, the kind of thing that you hear around campfires or scary stories that you try to share when you're, you know, with good friends late at night.

Those are the classic urban legends that have been around for quite a while. Then there are hoaxes and there are just simply false tales. I think probably with the advent of the Internet, I use the term rumor more often now, because there will be major things on the Internet that are not that old that have not been something that is 20, 30, 40 or 80 years old.

NELSON: Has there been -- the Internet, then, has exacerbated this problem.

ALLVIN: Absolutely, it has.

BUHLER: Unbelievably. Urban legends have been around as long as there have been people sharing stories, as long as there's been things to misunderstand or to exaggerate or people who want to create something that matches their fears or their prejudices. But the Internet has allowed for an unprecedented opportunity to spread them.

I mean, when you get something in e-mail, all you have to do is just send it to your e-mail list, and it's -- the multiplication factor is enormous. That's been the downside. You mentioned...

NELSON: Let me ask -- let me bring in Mr. Allvin first. Mr. Allvin, I have received this e-mail just recently about Mr. Shergold, so this is still alive on the Internet. What does -- what are some of the worst you've received, or maybe the one that's caused you the most harm? Is that the one, or it's some others?

ALLVIN: Well, I tell you, Craig Shergold is the most enduring. We have been dealing with that for 12 years now. It's just been woven into the fabric of our work at the Make a Wish Foundation. And Craig Shergold has had to live with it. The one that most recently has been the most troublesome to us is, it's a group of chain letters in which it's the same request. They put different names on it. And it started with Amy Bruce saying that she has cancer and she's very ill and that if you forward this e- mail, every time it gets forwarded, the Make a Wish Foundation will give her 7 cents, and if you don't, what goes around comes around.

Well, that's a very offensive thing (inaudible) a lot of people to get. And, of course, we don't do that sort of thing. The e-mail now has the names Amy Bruce, Jeff DeLeone, and Nikisha Johnson on it. And we get -- they come in waves. And there are days -- last Thursday, my assistant, Jodie, spent five hours doing nothing but answering e-mails, because we had another wave of inquiries about it.

NELSON: That's like a cottage industry.


NELSON: This is terrible.

Listen, thank you for joining us, Paul Allvin, who's the director of communications for Make a Wish Foundation. We appreciate your being with us.

ALLVIN: Thank you.

NELSON: We're going to -- we want our viewers to stick with us, because still ahead, we're going to take your questions about the truth or the fiction of e-mail urban legends. And if you know of one on your own, or you want to know the truth about another one, just e- mail us here at, or you can call us as well. The phone number is 404-221-1855. And we're going to continue our discussion on this in just a moment.


NELSON: Welcome back to our interactive segment. And today the topic is urban legends.

Now, if you have a question, you can call us now at 404-221-1855. Love to hear your questions. Or you can also e-mail us too, the address is

And rejoining us to answer all of your questions in Los Angeles is Rich Buhler from the Web site

We have an e-mail in, Mr. Buhler, so let's see if we can try to (inaudible), maybe in the course of that you can explain what your Web site does. Here it is. "For the past several weeks, I've received a recurring e-mail warning, the U.S. Postal Service is requesting legislation to allow it to collect a surcharge on each e-mail received, that Internet service providers will be required to levy that charge."

I've had this one in various forms myself. Is this fact or fiction? It comes from Kate Fitch, who's in Roskomon (ph), Michigan. BUHLER: Well, Kate, you're very wise for asking, because it is totally fiction. You know, there are some urban legends or rumors that have a seed of truth to them. This one I have classed as an actual hoax, because not only is it not true, not only has this bill never been suggested, there is a bill number, I think they talk about 602, that has nothing to do with the Postal Service.

But they -- there -- they quote a congressman in the story who does not exist. So it's a total hoax. There's no truth to it. And it's one of the most commonly circulated rumors on the Internet right now.

NELSON: And I've seen some very serious people accept that one too.

BUHLER: Oh, yes. You can see by the size of the e-mail lists that they're being sent out to as to how seriously it's taken.

NELSON: We got a caller for you now. This is Linda in Arizona. Linda, can you hear me?


NELSON: Go ahead.

CALLER: I'm calling to ask about that -- there was one about the head of Procter and Gamble coming on "Sally Jesse Raphael (ph)" and saying that he was a devil worshiper.

NELSON: Oh, that's a famous one, yes.

BUHLER: That's a classic. It is not true. The interview never took place. This rumor is at least 15 years old. Procter and Gamble has actually taken legal action against some people who have spread it knowing that it's a rumor. Those are usually people who were kind of like selling home products and wanted to tell people not to buy Procter and Gamble products.

And it -- and' through the years it's been said to have been on Merv Griffin, on Oprah Winfrey, on the Maury Povitch show. But it's completely untrue. There's not even a seed of truth to it.

NELSON: Mr. Buhler, how do you verify that yourself?

BUHLER: Well...

NELSON: I mean, how are you funded? I mean, who -- do you do this work pro bono?

BUHLER: Well, I have been interested in urban legends ever since I started off as a newsman 30 years ago. And our site, like other Internet sites, exists financially through Web advertising. But yes, a part of it is because we enjoy helping keep people tuned in to what's truth and what's fiction.

And the way we look into them, obviously, is -- this one is a pretty simple one. You go to Procter and Gamble and ask them. Now, a cynic would say they're going to lie, but Procter and Gamble wouldn't. But I think a more important fact is that in the 15 years that I have been looking into that rumor, and at one point I hosted a national daily radio talk show, so I had plenty of opportunity for people to give me feedback...

NELSON: OK. I got a couple more for you.

BUHLER: ... there was never anybody who gave any substance of that story.

NELSON: I got a couple more for you. This comes in on an e- mail. It's a two-parter. "Is the businessman kidney removal story a true one or not?" I've gotten that one several times.

BUHLER: Well, this is one where somebody goes on a trip, wakes up in a bathtub of ice with a note that says, "Your kidneys have been removed, harvested for organs." That is totally untrue. There's no documented case of that ever occurring, and, in fact, it's not even medically feasible.

NELSON: OK. The second part is about the couple at the movies that feels a prick between their seats, and when they stand up, they have a note taped to their chair that says, "Welcome to my world. The prick was a needle contaminated with the HIV virus." That's sure to send people away from going to the theater.

BUHLER: That is a false rumor. It's also been said about pay phones, that there's a needle hidden in the coin return slot of a pay phone, and there's a lot of different variations with the HIV needle. Again, no documented evidence of that ever occurring. And the HIV virus would not be able to be spread that way.

NELSON: Yes. Here's another, here's a real good classic that I think has gone around a lot. A body clad in scuba diving gear is found in the area of a forest fire, and according to this story, a man who was scuba diving was picked up by a helicopter scooping up water to fight a forest fire, then his body was dumped, along with the water, on the top of the fire. Truth or fiction?

BUHLER: Absolute fiction. They even quote a newspaper source in that one. And that is a small foreign language newspaper. Such an article has never appeared in that newspaper. That's, that's, that's kind of one that you smile. And that's one of the things that makes it an urban legend, it's something you like to tell someone else.

NELSON: It's hard to believe the gullibility of people.

We're going to be back to you in just a moment, though, so stay with us, OK? We're going to take more e-mails and calls and answers from Rich Buhler, who will talk about urban legends. And if you have a question, be sure to give us a call. The phone number is 404-221- 1855. And you can also e-mail us, so do that as well, We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) NELSON: Welcome back again to our interactive segment. We're discussing urban legends today, and we invite you to call us with your questions. The phone number is 404-221-1855.

And our guest with all the answers is Rich Buhler. He's from the Web site If you haven't seen it, it's probably going to be very popular right after this show. The site investigates so-called urban legends, and Rich joins us from Los Angeles.

All right, we have another one for you, Mr. Buhler, here it goes. A person who really enjoys a cookie eaten at a famous restaurant. The customer asks for and is given the recipe for that cookie and later the customer finds an enormous charge on a credit card bill for that cookie recipe. The customer then e-mails that recipe to everyone possible in revenge. I've gotten that one too, and that fact -- that's an early e-mail circulatory.

What -- did -- is that true or fiction?

BUHLER: It's fiction, and interestingly enough, has been traced back to the early part of the century. But it is totally fiction, and usually -- it'll vary in mentioning a popular name, brand name of a cookie, but it has never occurred.

NELSON: Now, when you say this is the start of the earliest century, are some of these just being recycled, or are we using any creativity and ingenuity in coming up with some new ones?

ALLVIN: Oh, no, I'd say the vast majority of them are relatively new, but an amazing number of them are time-honored urban legends that have been around for a long time. And it's -- they just bring -- they just have new life, you know, new generations hears them.

NELSON: OK, I'm going to ask you how you discern between right and wrong here, but I want to -- we've got another caller here, and we've got Burton in Florida. He's got, he's got a question about Microsoft. Burton?


NELSON: Hello, Burton, go ahead with your question.

CALLER: Well, I just wanted to know what the original source of the Microsoft beta test, forward this e-mail, if it gets to so many people, you get X number of dollars per hit mailed to you in a check, and of course it's somebody's best friend that's already received their check for $8,000. Where did that come from?

BUHLER: Well, we don't know where it came from, but it is false. It is not true. Like many urban legends, some of them we'll never know where they originated.

And Brian, it's very important to use this as an example. Any e- mail that says that if you forward it for money for yourself or, like the Make a Wish story, for somebody who's got cancer, you can just trash that. There is no system being used on the Internet where someone can trace forwarded e-mails in order to be able to reimburse the people who forwarded them.

NELSON: That's really good to point out. I was wondering how you were going to answer that one.

But is there, is there a broader rule of thumb that we can use when we get these e-mails to determine whether it's -- you get a lot, a lot from stockbrokers, you know, we get a lot from people asking us to make a contribution somewhere. What's the rule of thumb that you would use?

BUHLER: The rule of thumb that applies to most of them is, how close to firsthand information are you? Most urban legends are what an urban legend expert, Jan Herrel Brunban (ph), calls "friend of a friend" stories. You know, they go through three or four generations back.

But if something important to you has come to you, a prayer request, help, a warning about something, a health warning or to write your congressman, as close as you are to a firsthand account of that, the better the chances that it may be true.

Most of this stuff is not firsthand, it's not secondhand, it's much farther than that. And one of the instructive things about this, Brian, it's not just entertaining and interesting, I think a lot of people, because the Internet not only spreads it quickly but it also helps people get feedback quickly that these are rumors, I think it's making a lot of people stop and think, Hmm, how much of what I'm told and pass along really is true?

NELSON: You can't believe everything you read.

Here's another. It's a woman in Texas says her family has many health problems caused by candles that they have burned in their home. She warns others of burning candles. Now, this is supposedly a health threat, to burn candles. Is that true or not?

BUHLER: Yes, this one is true. That's not to say that every candle is a health threat. But this has been in the news just in the last week or two, the concern over lead content in some candles and in the wicks of some candles. This story about this woman is true. She has experienced health problems. She's been a person who has brought that to a lot of people's attentions, including, apparently, Congress.

NELSON: Now, are there many out there that are true? Have you encountered a lot (inaudible)? What percentage of them are true, in your experience?

BUHLER: I would say about -- oh, I don't know, 4 or 5 percent of them end up being true, maybe sometimes 10 percent. Yes, a lot of them are true, but...

NELSON: Not that many, though, if you're talking...

BUHLER: But not that many.

NELSON: ... 9 percent or not. BUHLER: No, no. The overwhelming majority of them are either utterly untrue or they're a corrupted version of something that was once true. Like a lot of missing kids. There's a big one about Kelsey Brook Jones, a little girl that's missing. She was missing for about two hours, and it was a couple of years ago. And that is one of the most commonly circulated e-mails right now.

NELSON: I remember that one.

Let's go to Jay, who's in British Columbia. She has a question for you. Jay? Hello, Jay?

CALLER: Hi. I'm just wondering if you've ever heard of the Darwin Award, and...


CALLER: ... if the stories in that are true or false?

BUHLER: The Darwin Awards attempt to make sure that those stories are true and are documented. I found a couple of them that are not. But the Darwin Awards try to make sure those are true stories.

NELSON: There is an organization called the Darwin Awards?

BUHLER: Yes. They track people who have done stupid things, usually to their demise, and the reason they call it the Darwin Awards is that because these people, by killing themselves, have cleansed the gene pool of stupid people.

NELSON: Some of those are the funniest I've ever read.

Here's another one for you, Rich. A racist passenger demands to be moved away from the black man that she was seated next to. The stewardess warns the flight is full, but there may be a seat in club or first class. The stewardess returns to tell the woman there was one remaining seat in first class, but permission had to be gained from the captain for such a move.

The captain agreed that no one should have to sit next to such an obnoxious person, and the black man was taken to the first class seat while the other passengers cheered for him.

This is one of those urban myths. Is it true or fiction?

BUHLER: It is fiction. The airline says it never happened. But it sure feels good to tell the story.

NELSON: It sure does. That's one of the few unproven.

All right, what is your favorite? Do you have a favorite?

BUHLER: What is my favorite? I think -- I'll tell you what one is one of the classics. You were talking with Make a Wish about other organizations that have been affected by this. Probably the organization that's been affected the most and holds the record is the Federal Communications Commission. A rumor got started many years ago that the famous atheist, Madalyn Murray O'Hair, was trying to take religious broadcasting off of radio and television. It was utterly untrue. Sounds like something she would do, but it was utterly untrue.

And the FCC, the last time I checked, had received more than 30 million pieces of mail in response to that one untrue rumor itself.

NELSON: Unbelievable.

BUHLER: And that's a classic. And it's going to be interesting to see what happens to that now that the authorities believe they've found her remains in Texas.

NELSON: Here's another one. Let's get your opinion on this one. A woman is discovered in her car. This is -- I can hardly believe this. A woman is discovered in her car holding the back of her head. She says she has been shot and is holding her brains.

Paramedics discover that as the woman got into the car, a can of biscuits exploded in a grocery bag in the back seat of the car. Between the noise of the explosion and the impact on the back of her head, she thought she had been shot, and, as we said, she was holding her brains in her hand.

Fact or fiction?

BUHLER: Fiction.

NELSON: Need I ask?

BUHLER: Yes. The -- a lot of these stories, Brian, are -- I've always wondered, where do they originate? Some of them have originated just from being corrupted versions of real stories. Some of them are outright hoaxes, for who knows what reason.

But the majority of urban legends, I am convinced, have somehow come from a desire on someone's part to have this be true, to tell a story that's prejudicial against people they don't like, to tell a story that's so bizarre and so funny that they just would love to repeat it to others. And the more outlandish it is, but enough to sound true, the more it'll get passed around.

And that's a great story, but there's no documented evidence of it ever occurring. Could have, I suppose, in the bizarre way that things happen in life. But we've never found it to be real.

NELSON: Well, thanks so much. You've cleared up a lot of questions in my mind, and I think in the minds of our viewers. And we'll be on guard as we get more of these.

BUHLER: Hey, happy to be with you. And any time you want to check out an urban legend, we'll be happy to be available.

NELSON: That's right, that's Rich Buhler, and his Web site is

BUHLER: Thank you, Brian.

NELSON: Thanks; thanks for being with us.

A fascinating subject, but sure, and if we didn't get to your question, or if you want to find out more or heard something about something you've read, drop us a line here at, and we're going to check it out for you.



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