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Interview With David Mikkelson, Barbara Mikkelson

Aired May 2, 2004 - 09:29   ET


ERICA HILL, CNN ANCHOR: In the headlines this hour, a U.S. contractor kidnapped in Iraq last month has been found alive. About two hours ago U.S. military officials announced Thomas Hamill apparently escaped from his captors near Tikrit about 100 miles from where he was captured. Officials say he is in good health.
Coalition forces have reportedly killed a deputy of an anti- American cleric, Muqtada Al-Sadr. Al-Sadr's press office says it happened yesterday, when coalition forces raided Al-Sadr's offices in the southern Iraqi town of Hillah. Four others were also killed. It was Al-Sadr's militia that launched the recent uprising against the U.S.-led coalition.

Four Israeli children and their mother were killed today in an attack near a Jewish settlement in southern Gaza. The Israeli army then killed the two attackers. This comes as Israel's ruling Likud party votes on Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's withdrawal plan for Gaza and parts of the West Bank.

Poland's Prime Minister Leszek Miller stepped down today and the country's president appointed former Finance Minister Marek Belka to replace him. The move comes just a day after Miller helped lead Poland into the European Union. Miller's government was weakened by economic problems and corruption allegations.


HILL: Still to come, you know about spam, all those unwanted e- mails you get, many full of ads. What do you call the unwanted e-mail tales? You know the ones, stories that circulate on the web that turn out to be nothing more than a fairy tale. Just ahead, some of the recent well-traveled fables and how you can fight them.


HILL: If you read it on line it must be true, right? Wrong. A bogus wire story says NFL star Ray Lewis beat his girlfriend, TLC's "Chilli" Thomas, so bad she had to be hospitalized, but it was all a big lie. First of all, the two aren't even dating.

Some 600 people use the Internet worldwide according to a recent survey. 180 million of them in the U.S. and Canada. And with all that traffic, how do you know what you read on the worldwide web is true?

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) HILL (voice-over): Here's an e-mail that's been circulating at least since April 20. It says NFL superstar quarterback Michael Vick announced publicly he was gay. The e-mail looked just like many other news stories, complete with a global associated news date line. The problem is, it was a fake. So Vick went on the radio to get the story straight.

MICHAEL VICK, NFL QUARTERBACK: Come on, man. I mean, you know, we all know that was a straight bogus e-mail, man. Somebody on the Internet playing around, doing what they're doing, got nothing else to do better with their time, man. It's something I won't even feed into, man. Everybody that knows me knows how I get down. I ain't even got to go no further with that. You know what I'm saying. I'm looking forward to, you know doing other things. Man, it's not even an issue.

HILL: Then, there's this story about the NFL's Ray Lewis allegedly beating former TLC singer Rozanda "Chilli" Thomas, sending her to a Baltimore hospital. Again, a fake. Thomas also went public to deny the bogus e-mail. So how do you know a story is a lie?

DOUG ISENBERG, ATTORNEY: I think first thing is to be vigilant and question what you read on the Internet just as you would question what you hear on the street. And just because you read something online doesn't necessarily mean that it's true.

HILL: Isenberg offers tips on checking out Internet news stories. Number one, if you don't know who's sending it to you, raise a red flag. Secondly, if it's not a main mainstream Web site, be leery. Number three, reputable news services usually have you sign up for news updates. For instance, you won't normally get a CNN story unless you sign up for updates at Number four, check to see who publishes a suspicious Web site. Two recommended search engines are and

So, what recourse do Lewis and Vick have against whoever sent out the false stories? Isenberg says not much. They first have to prove the stories hurt their reputations or cost them some endorsements or other monetary losses. But they could, however, fight fire with fire.

ISENBERG: But because they're celebrities and sports figures they also have a forum available to them to publicly retract the information or to set the record straight. And if they do that, perhaps that minimizes the damage that was done, if there was any in the first place.


HILL: Speaking of setting the record straight, at the beginning of this we told you -- I told you how many people were actually using the Internet worldwide. I said 600. It's 600 million. But you probably figured it was more than 600.

We contacted the owner of the Web site where the Michael Vick rumor started. That Web site called The owner would like to remain nameless, but he did issue CNN a statement. He says the fake e-mail was, quote, "not created by the Entertainment Network. The story was actually a nameless template that utilizes a domain name trick to dynamically insert anyone's name into the body of a story. In this case, a Web site visitor decided to use Michael Vick's name by inserting it into the web site address for a "Gay Football Player" template... and the rumor was born." The owner goes on to say he is a big fan of Michael Vick. He's working in concert with the Atlanta Falcons to help stop the spread of rumors.

A lot of so-called urban legends have been cataloged at You may be familiar with it. A color-coded guide signals if something is true or not or should be taken with a grain of salt. David and Barbara Mikkelson founded and they have become experts at separating the bogus from the bona fide. They join us this morning from Los Angeles. Good morning to you.



HILL: Barbara, first of all, how did you get started in this, separating the bogus from the bona fide on line?

BARBARA MIKKELSON: Well, it was started out as our hobby, and that's what it still is. We just had a love of trying to find extra details about stories that were already in circulation, seeing what we could add to what was already known, and from there we started putting our writings up as web pages.

HILL: Well, with all the hoaxes and the urban legends that make the rounds, and all the ones that land in my in box, it must keep you two very busy. David, what are some tips for folks out there to help them separate the bogus from the bona fide in their e-mail?

DAVID MIKKELSON: Well, other than checking out our site, a lot of different things. One is, of course, if a story is real, you're generally going to see it in more than one place. If you're finding something that seems rather sensational and it's only on one Web site and it's not something major like CNN or ABC, that's a pretty good tip that perhaps the story is just a rumor or something that someone made up.

HILL: You mentioned major news sites. That's been a problem in the past, because I know we get e-mails here sometimes at CNN that say, I got this story forwarded to me and it says it's from CNN and it says so-and-so has passed away. And it's a story that's obviously not true and the site is a bit of a hoax. If you get something that looks real, how do you go about making sure it is or isn't?

DAVID MIKKELSON: Well, that's true, but people, you know, fake stories by putting CNN or AP or something in the header to make it look like a real story, but, you know if you go to those -- the Web sites operated by those agencies and try and find the story there and can't find it, and can't find it anywhere else on the web that's a good indicator that maybe it's questionable.

HILL: Maybe it's not a real story. Barbara, before we let you go, what do you think has been the biggest hoax or perhaps the longest running one? I got to tell you, Microsoft just came back again to haunt me. I first got it, I think, in '97.

BARBARA MIKKELSON: One of the longest running right now is the Nigerian scam. We've seen that make a very successful transition into the on-line world. And that is a long-lived con game wherein someone who supposedly has a great deal of money and is in a foreign country needs your help to move the funds to safety. And if you cooperate and help this along they're going to give you a percentage of the take, so you'll end up with about 10 or 15 million or so.

HILL: If only that were the case.


HILL: Instead they get your information. Barbara and David, we appreciate you getting up early on west coast to join us this morning. Your Web site again is to help us all debunk some of those wacky e-mails and Internet hoaxes. Thanks again.


RENAY SAN MIGUEL, CNN ANCHOR: And this story has to do with our e-mail question of the day. All morning long we've been asking you to weigh in on whether or not you've been the victim of a hoax or what you think about this particular situation.

Mark in Florence, South Carolina writes in, "I receive these hoax e-mails at least once a day. I have only fallen for one of them, the hoax about the drink companies refusing service to a Muslim convenience store owner who supposedly laughed about the 9/11 attacks."

HILL: David says unfortunately 9/11 did see a huge rise in hoaxes.

We heard from Kevin in San Bernardino, California. He says, "I've never fallen for any Internet scam, why? Because I'm not so stupid as to believe that somebody who doesn't know me wants to give me things."

SAN MIGUEL: There is that. Sometimes common sense can help you separate the myths from the fraud, and everything else

HILL: Every now and then it kicks in?

SAN MIGUEL: Sometimes it kicks in.

Thanks for writing in. We appreciate you doing that today.

We've got more news for you coming up on CNN SUNDAY MORNING. Nobody was spared last night in Washington as comedian Jay Leno took aim.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) JAY LENO, COMEDIAN: Colin Powell and Dick Cheney no longer speak to each other. To give you an idea how bad it's gotten, their Secret Service code names are Bill and Hillary.



HILL: Time now for a check of our headlines at this hour.

Alive and well and talking, that is what U.S. officials are saying about Thomas Hamill, the American contractor missing in Iraq since last month. U.S. troops recovered the 43-year-old this morning after he apparently escaped from his captors.

And we're learning more about where he may have been held. This just coming in to CNN, Major Neil O'Brian with the 1st Infantry Division said that a military unit, quote, "conducted a hasty cordon and search of the area and detained Iraqi two citizens with one AK-47 rifle." That after Hamill apparently took U.S. troops to the house where he was held hostage. We'll bring you more on that as we have it.

Hamill's currently being debriefed by the military. He was found about 100 miles from where he was taken.

And elsewhere in Iraq, a roadside bomb attack early this morning in northwest Baghdad killed two U.S. soldiers. Two members of the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps were also wounded in that incident.

In the southern town of Amara two other U.S. soldiers died late yesterday when their convoy came under fire.


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