HIV needlestick hoax

The Australian Red Cross Blood Service says it has received thousands of calls from people concerned by a hoax email about HIV-infected needles found in a cinema seat and at an automatic teller machine.

The email circulated widely across Australia using a Red Cross staff member’s name and email address, but the Blood Service says it did not authorise the message and has no knowledge of the events described.

From ABC Online.

This is a resurgence of one of the most popular email-hoaxes of the 90s, a time when this squalid form of urban legend known as scarelore came to the fore. None of the newspapers have run the text of the hoax, but having spent years on the newsgroup alt.folklore.urban I can almost guarantee that it went much like this:

PLEASE READ THIS CAREFULLY! IT MIGHT SAFE YOUR LIFE!

This is happening in Montreal. A couple of weeks ago, in a movie theater, a person sat on something sharp in one of the seats. When she stood up to see what it was, a needle was found poking through the seat with an attached note saying, “You have been infected with HIV.” The Centers for Disease Control reports similar events have taken place in several other cities recently. All of the needles tested HAVE been positive for HIV. The CDC also reports that needles have been found in the coin return areas of pay phones and soda machines. Everyone is asked to use extreme caution when confronted with these types of situations. All public chairs should be thoroughly but safely inspected prior to any use. A thorough visual inspection is considered a bare minimum. Furthermore, they ask that everyone notify their family members and friends of the potential dangers, as well. Thank you.

The previous information was sent from the Regina City Police Department to all of the local governments in the Saskatchewan area and was interdepartmentally dispersed. We were asked to pass this to as many people as possible. This is very important! Just think you could save somebody’s life, just by passing this on. Please take a Couple of seconds of your time and pass this on. Thank you for your precious time and consideration!

That was circulated in 2001. More versions [link].

The tactic of attaching a genuine staff member’s details to the hoax-mail is typical of these warning hoaxes, primarily to give their scarelore some spurious credibility, but perhaps also because they know that doing so will cause some sort of mayhem for the organisation and therefore publicity for their hoax effort as well. The Australian Red Cross had their phone lines tied up for days as people rang them seeking facts about the warning. A similiar hoax-mail a few years ago about kidney-thieves had the contact details of a staff member at a Sydney teaching hospital attached, and they still get flurries of phone calls every year as its propogation ebbs and flows.

It is possible that there was malice towards the particular Red Cross worker whose name and contact details were attached to this iteration of the hoax. Obviously s/he will be highly embarassed and perhaps viewed with suspicion by his/her coworkers for some time to come. But perhaps that person was simply unlucky, and the hoaxster saw their details attached to some other document and just copied them opportunistically.

Every time, people who really ought to know better act gullibly and forward these hoaxes on. Yet there are plenty of sites out there (links at end of post) where people can check forwarded email warnings against known circulating hoaxes, any one of which would have quickly shown that this was a reworking of a classic, and not based on any real threat. So why don’t people take a minute or two to to check the facts before clicking the FORWARD button? Because the faux-glow from useless click-activism is so satisfying – a feeling that one has done something useful, even though at best one has merely added to the clogging of the internet with drivel and most likely one has actually made things worse for some organisation trying to do genuine good work.

The Sunday Mail, highlights a spokespersons’ statement of what should be bleeding (sorry) obvious, and something that everyone tempted to forward a salacious warning email should keep in mind:

The [Red Cross] said it did not circulate important public health and safety information via email to unknown individuals.

Quite. If there really is a threat that the Red Cross, or the Police, or the Fire Brigade wants people to know about, it will be front page news. So do encourage people to check out these scarelore warnings, if you can’t persuade them to ignore them altogether as the timewasters they are. Try perhaps to be a bit more diplomatic in how you phrase that than I am being here – a quick email reply that you think it just might be a scarelore hoax and a link referring them to Hoax-slayer and also a site such as the ones below with specific information on the hoax-du-jour is the best way to go, and don’t get snarky (it’s counterproductive).

Urban Legends links on HIV needles hoax:
TAFKAC – Hypodermic Hysteria
Snopes Urban Legends Reference Pages
Urbanlegends at about.com [link 1] [link 2]
Wikipedia – AIDs myths

Hoaxbusters makes the important point that if a suspected hoax email has contact details for an organisation’s staff member, do not call that person or email them for confirmation – they will already be overwhelmed. If it is a hoax, the organisation’s website will often have something up on their front page debunking the matter, although unfortunately the Australian Red Cross has not yet done this regarding the latest HIV needle hoax. Send a copy of the suspected hoax to your organisation’s IT manager if you find the research too daunting – they will be more used to finding out about them and can send out a general message to your coworkers regarding such hoaxes if needed.

Good luck hobbling those hoaxes.



Categories: Sociology

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3 replies

  1. Has it been confirmed that some hoaxster pasted the staff member’s details in? In similar situations in the past, it has often (usually?) been the case that the staff member really did stupidly mass forward the hoax email from their work address at some point. In the fury of unsnipped further mass forwards a seemingly relevant staff signature tends to be retained, as it lends the email an air of credibility in the eyes of the forwarders.

  2. There’s very little available in the media about it really. You make a good point that I’m jumping to conclusions that it wasn’t actually the staff member who was the gullible forwarder at some point in time.
    I should have thought of that myself. My time on afu was a while ago, now.

  3. I hate getting those kinds of emails. They can take up a lot of time, clog up my inbox and I feel guilty for deleting them – even after confirming that they are hoaxes. Still, I guess they are better than bloody chain mail – which I get enough of.

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