Prank website and social networks spark surge in death hoaxes: Internet Scambusters #474
Death hoaxes are on the rise -- fuelled by the rapid circulation of rumors on Twitter and Facebook.
And the fact that many of the supposed deaths occur in the same place or from the same cause results from a website that allows people to spoof their own news reports of tragedies.
In this week's issue, we look back at some of the death hoax highlights of 2011 and urge readers to think twice before reposting these reports.
Let's get started...
A Record Year for Death Hoaxes?
It's an unfortunate sign of the times that, in the world of showbiz, sports and politics, you possibly can't be said to have really made it until your name joins the growing list of death hoaxes.
The era of social networking, especially the use of Twitter, enables death rumors to sweep around the world in no time at all. The stories become "fact" long before they turn out to be "fiction"!
Beneath the needless concern and grief these stories can cause, both for their alleged victims and for fans and others who read them, lie some sinister explanations of why these death hoaxes appear.
There are a couple of main reasons:
First, there's the criminal aspect. Scammers use these death hoaxes to get people to click on a link or an attachment that enables them to upload viruses and spyware onto victims' PCs.
Or they may simply want to take you to a web page crammed with online ads and links.
Second, people with nothing better to do and a desperate need to create sensation just make them up. This is particularly the case with Twitter, and the people who create them probably need some serious counseling.
Sometimes, individuals or groups who are out to discredit others may use death hoaxes as one of their weapons -- as, for instance, when hackers gain control of a news website and post a supposed death story there.
We've covered this topic before, of course, in our article, Don't Believe Everything You Read: Celebrity Hoax Stories.
But, as it turns out, 2011 was possibly a record year not just for celebrity death hoaxes but also false rumors affecting the worlds of sport and politics.
Here's a rundown of the most frequent ones.
Celebrity Death Hoaxes
- The year started with the supposed death of actress Lindsay Lohan through a drug overdose, back in January. The hoax was compounded by a fake confirmation on Twitter from a bogus Kim Kardashian.
- Lohan no doubt discovered that if you're in the news for whatever reason, you're a prime candidate for a celebrity death hoax. Charlie Sheen had the same experience with a Facebook posting announcing his "death" after a heart attack. The posting had a link that led to a malicious website.
- Another in-the-news subject, Playboy founder Hugh Hefner was falsely said to have been found dead in bed. He later told reporters it was true he was in bed, but he was definitely alive!
- In August, Adam Sandler supposedly was the victim of a snowboarding accident in Zermatt, Switzerland. Denzel Washington, Jim Carrey, Luke Perry and Sylvester Stallone supposedly suffered exactly the same fate.This could be a contender for the most popular location for celebrity death hoaxes but there's also:
- During 2011, George Clooney, Will Smith, Tom Hanks and Hilary Duff were separately said to have fallen down New Zealand's Kauri Cliffs. This location has been used for previous celebrity death hoaxes including Tom Cruise and Jeff Goldblum.
- As for the most frequently cited death hoax victim, for the second year running it has to be teen heartthrob Justin Bieber. He was not only frequently in the news but also the subject of one celebrity death hoax after another -- ranging from shootings to drug overdoses -- throughout 2011.
- Runner-up is probably Lady Gaga, whose supposed death was reported on at least three separate occasions.
- Death hoaxers claimed another singer victim, the legendary Etta James. The scammers set up a bogus news page purporting to be from the celebrity news site TMZ.
- And for the youngest celebrity death hoax victim of 2011, we name Jaden Smith, 13-year-old son of Will Smith (see above) and star of The Karate Kid movie.
Political Death Hoaxes
- In a notorious incident back in July, Fox News' Twitter account was hacked and used to claim US President Barack Obama had been assassinated in Iowa.
- A month later hackers seized the website of the Canadian French language newspaper Le Devoir and posted a hoax claim that Quebec's Premier Jean Charest had died of a heart attack in the hospital.
- Earlier in the year, more than 6,000 Twitter death hoax postings in a single day reported that South African elder statesman Nelson Mandela had suffered a heart attack and died.
- Also in Africa, Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, president of the former Nigerian republic of Biafra, was another death hoax victim.
Sports Death Hoaxes
- In September, rumor mongers falsely claimed soccer star (and hubby of fashionista Victoria) David Beckham had died in a car crash. The death hoax even went so far as to talk about the nature of the injuries and the supposed funeral arrangements.
- Another sports figure who gets plenty of news coverage -- golfer Tiger Woods -- supposedly died after being found in a coma in a rental house in the Dominican Republic.
- A prankster named another exotic location -- Costa Rica -- as the final resting place of ex UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) star Kimo Leopoldo. The story was picked up and reported by the aforementioned TMZ website. The fighter was not amused.
If you're wondering why so many death hoaxes have either the same location or cause of death (including the Tiger Woods story), it's mostly down to one idiotic website that allows users to insert anyone's name into a bogus news story template reporting a death, and then draw attention to it.
The reports do carry a disclaimer pointing out that the story is a spoof but readers don't always spot that, and the site on which the stories are posted has a serious, official-sounding name.
Another source of death hoaxes is the malicious editing of celebrities' pages in the online encyclopedia, Wikipedia. For example, an entry for rapper Too Short was edited in this way.
The message for the rest of us is clear: Be skeptical about death reports concerning well-known personalities and don't just repost them without researching and confirming they're true.
And if they involve falling off a mountain in New Zealand or snowboarding in Zermatt, you know for sure they're just another batch of death hoaxes!
Time to conclude for today -- have a great week!