Real penguins aren't cuddly

Telling fact from the fiction of Internet hoaxes, urban legends

Telling fact from the fiction of Internet hoaxes, urban legends

December 03, 2006|by JULIE E. GREENE

Did you see the story about a penguin being stolen from a Boston aquarium?

Or did you receive an e-mail warning you not to microwave plastic containers?

These are just some of the online urban legends or hoaxes that some people believe could be true while others delete them without a second thought.

There are Web sites, such as the privately run and, that list known cyber urban legends and hoaxes. For fraudulent e-mails in general, Web users can check other sites, such as the FBI's Cyber Investigations site,

Some Internet providers also can assist their customers in determining whether an e-mail contains fraudulent information. For example. Earthlink's allows people to copy and paste a suspicious Web link into their site to see if the site is listed on Earthlink's black list.


Then there are the urban legend e-mails, things that seem too tall a tale to be true, but some people fall for them - like the penguin story.

"It varies from telling to telling, but what is consistent is someone comes in, often with an autistic individual who wanders off, then comes back or is found by the group soaking wet," says Cristina Santiestevan, spokeswoman for the New England Aquarium in Boston.

They go home where the autistic person takes a bath and when the relative or friend goes to check on the individual they find a penguin in the bathtub, she says.

The aquarium first got calls about this tale around the time the movie "March of the Penguins" was released on DVD, and represenatives have received a couple of calls since "Happy Feet" hit theaters in November, Santiestevan says.

"I think people have penguins on their minds. People like penguins. I think it's a ridiculous story when we hear it, but I guess it sounds a little plausible" because the aquarium has gotten calls about it, Santiestevan says.

For the record, none of the aquarium's penguins has ever been stolen, and that would be extremely difficult, she says.

The 65 little blue, African and rockhopper penguins comprise one of the aquarium's most popular attractions, and the exhibit is in plain sight. Someone would have to climb down into the pool and weave through cold water to catch a very quick, wild penguin, she says.

"Our penguins are not cuddily. They will stick up for themselves if they need to," Santiestevan says. Sometimes they bite their aquarium handlers with their strong, sharp beaks.

Occasionally, the urban legend calls for the penguin to be carried out in a backpack.

"Certainly, a penguin stuck in a backpack would not go quietly," she says.

Another urban legend that has made the e-mail rounds for at least two years is about a Johns Hopkins newsletter that states people should not put plastic containers in the microwave or water bottles in the freezer because this releases certain cancer-causing chemicals into the food and water.

"We just inform callers that it's not real," says Edith Mason, an administrative assistant with Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions' Marketing and Communications office.

Vincent Weafer, senior director of Symantec's Security Response, says hackers used to design e-mails for notoriety, but many of the fake e-mails circulating in the last 18 months have become less about fame and more about making a profit.

The type of Internet crime reported the most in 2005 was auction fraud, according to the Internet Crime Complaint Center's annual report.

But the Internet complaint that resulted in the greatest average financial loss per complaint was the Nigerian letter fraud scam with an average of $5,000 lost per complaint, according to the report.

The Nigerian letter fraud scam, which began as a regular letter fraud scam 25 years ago, is still making the rounds, says Symantec's Weafer. Symantec develops security software solutions such as Norton Antivirus.

If you receive a suspicious e-mail and cannot verify whether it's a fraud by visiting Web sites such as Symantec's, Weafer says there are tell-tale signs that often distinguish fraudulent e-mails.

Whereas older fraudulent e-mails often tried to elicit people to click on an attachment, many now try to get people to click on a Web link within the e-mail.

Whether just trying to spread a hoax or steal identity information, these fake e-mails tend to have alarmist tones, Weafer says. They want people to immediately forward the e-mail to warn their friends or click on a Web link in the message body and provide personal financial information.

Don't do it, even if it appears the e-mail is from your bank, he says. Don't click on links or call numbers in the e-mail; instead, call a purported source such as your bank via an otherwise verified number or go directly to its real Web site to do business.

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