The Cop Column
October, 2006
Sgt. Rick Hord
Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office

Internet Information: The Good, the Bad, and the Dubious

            The Internet is amazing. Information once available to only a few is now at the fingertips of almost anybody.

            Much of this information is “Good.” It’s accurate and reliable, like having a bookshelf full of encyclopedias. Want baseball statistics from 1926? Demographic information for Greenland ? The highest and lowest points of each of the 50 states? It’s all there.  

            Other information, however is “Bad,” and outright malicious. E-mails that promise millions of dollars, if you provide your bank account information to a stranger in Nigeria are blatant attempts at identity theft. There are many, many others.

            In between those two extremes is a wide variety of “Dubious” information. Nobody is trying to steal your money or identity, but information presented as factual may be misleading or incomplete. Dubious Internet Information often appears to be sincere, and potentially useful. It is most commonly found in e-mails, mass-forwarded by friends, associates, and acquaintances.

            Dubious information may fall into several categories:

            1-Mercy Appeals or Missing Persons. Endlessly-forwarded e-mails are like a runaway train at full speed with nobody in the driver’s seat. For example, one still-percolating message is an appeal in which a very ill nine year old boy wishes to amass a record collection of business cards. The story was legit… many years ago. The boy stopped collecting cards in 1991 and is now 27 years old and healthy.  That’s just one example; hundreds, if not thousands, of well-intentioned electronic “missing” posters are circulating long after the lost person is recovered.

            2-Advice. Perform CPR on yourself by coughing. Intentionally crash your car to foil a kidnapper. Put a bogus address in your e-mail address book to prevent the spread of viruses. None of these are good advice, but they continue to circulate, along with many other examples of dubious and outright fallacious advice.   

            3-Scary Things. Despite what you may read in your inbox, serial killers do not lure victims with tape recordings of crying babies, and gang members do not kill innocent motorists for flashing their high beams. 

            4-Quotations. The names of  Willie Nelson, Ted Nugent, Paul Harvey, Andy Rooney, and many others have been attached to things they never said or wrote. So common is the practice of false attribution in forwarded e-mails that it has a special name: “False Authority Syndrome.”

            5-Photographs. Some of those spectacular photos people send to each other are indeed exactly as advertised. Others are fabricated or altered, and quite a few are real photos with fictitious captions attached, such as a 21-fot crocodile caught in the Republic of the Congo in 2003 falsely identified as found in a swimming pool in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

            In some cases, the bogus information starts as a joke. In others, it’s well-intentioned but incorrect. How to tell what’s authentic, what’s a prank, what’s misleading, what’s out of date, and what’s plain wrong? Fortunately, several web sites are devoted to sorting out truth from fiction; my personal favorite is, which lists 44 categories of “Urban Legends.”