Is that email fact or fiction?


Western News – April 26, 2007

An email hoax created a continent-wide nightmare and a ‘forward’ by a Canadian university employee added credibility to the act of malice.    

By Terry Rice
It’s hard to believe that trying to be helpful could turn out so badly.

But for one secretary at an Ontario university that’s exactly what happened.

An email came to her warning that mulch being sold at big box stores was infested with termites.

“After the hurricane in New Orleans many trees were blown over. These trees were then turned into mulch and the state is trying to get rid of tons and tons of this mulch to any state or company who will come and haul it away. So it will be showing up in Home Depot and Lowes at dirt cheap prices with one huge problem; Formosan Termites will be the bonus in many of those bags.” the email proclaimed.

The timing couldn’t have been better – it’s Spring and doing yard work is top of mind – spreading the warning to friends, family and colleagues would seem the natural thing to do, so she forwarded the message.

Turned out the message was a hoax.

The Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry had put quarantines in place last fall to prevent such a spread of Formosan termites. And as for Home Depot, they don’t use suppliers from the New Orleans area and they don’t even sell mulch-like products from the United States (U.S.) in their Canadian stores.

That’s when things went from bad to worse.

The woman’s signature file was attached to her email. Eventually the message ended up in the wrong hands. Someone with bad intentions re-jigged the message to make it look like the warning was coming from the university itself, with her credentials adding credibility.

Like the alleged termites themselves, the message continued to infest inboxes across Canada.

In the U.S., Louisiana State University’s AgCenter received calls non-stop about information contained in the emails. Their termite specialists were flooded with calls. The Home Depot put out a statement to deny the claims, and posted notices in all 138 stores across Canada in English and French. And the secretary herself was deluged with calls, forcing her to record a message on her voicemail advising people the report was a hoax.

As professionals working in an institution that prides itself on advancing knowledge, we carry a level of credibility that is not the norm. Our researchers and professors are quoted as “experts” daily in newspapers and on Web sites from Singapore to St. Thomas.

So when we pass along information, especially in emails, we have to ask ourselves not only if we want our names attached to such information but ultimately do we want the University’s reputation attached as well?

Some emails wreak a bogus scent, “Bill Gates, Microsoft and AOL are giving away cash” while others like the one claiming boycotting certain brands of gasoline will lower gas prices, make us pause.

A while ago I attended a church service where the minister told a motivating story about how Mel Gibson survived an attack by five thugs when he was as a young man, which left him horribly disfigured. Several plastic surgeries later he overcame his struggles and ultimately inspired the film The Man Without a Face. A few weeks later the Minister apologized to the congregation, admitting the story was a hoax sent to him via email.

It can happen to the best of us.

It’s bad information, spread (in most cases) with the best of intentions. The results range from embarrassment to severe consequences as witnessed in the mulch mishap.

So the next time you consider passing along a “helpful” email you may want to re-evaluate.

Consider it a little “forward” thinking.

Note: www.snopes.com is a good Web site dedicated to tracking and dispelling urban legends. A simple search on Snopes or Google can help you determine the validity of your email message.