Most natural disasters cannot be reliably predicted but rumor-mongers and hoaxers tell a different story about a weather and earthquake hoax: Internet Scambusters #391
An earthquake hoax often follows the real thing. When disaster strikes, emails race around the globe telling us another one is on the way.
With weather and other storm alerts, hoaxers also circulate phony information that can cause panic and even injury or death.
The truth is that most natural disasters, especially earthquakes, can't be predicted with any accuracy, but, as we explain in this issue, there are useful sources of information you can check and that can help you prepare... just in case.
While we've written about real disaster scams, including how to prepare for emergencies before, today we look at disaster hoaxes -- and how to avoid them.
Let's get started...
That Disaster Alert May Be Just Another Weather Or Earthquake Hoax
Is it time to hit the panic button -- or was that just another weather scam or earthquake hoax?
The trouble with natural disasters is that we're never quite sure when and where they'll strike.
The only thing we can be sure of is that, when they do, they'll provoke a rash of rumors and false stories about repeat disasters supposedly just about to happen.
Of course, with some events, like hurricanes, experts can predict their possible timing and landfall but even these are subject to last minute changes. We just can't second-guess Mother Nature.
But with earthquakes, despite everything that seismic science can do for us these days, we truly have no idea where and when the next "big one" will strike.
A case in point was the sequel to the Easter Sunday 7.2 magnitude earthquake in Northern Mexico.
Within 24 hours, earthquake hoaxers circulated an email saying an 8.4 shaker would hit Southern California in three days.
The scare was also repeated on Facebook and Twitter. Naturally, recipients were urged to pass it on to as many colleagues and friends as possible.
To add credibility, they falsely claimed the prediction came from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), which was said to be evacuating its buildings in Pasadena.
Other rumor-mongers claimed the US Geological Survey (USGS) had advised people in Los Angeles to get out of their homes and prepare for the big one.
"It's unfair for whoever is doing this to people. It's a cruel thing to do to people," said USGS information specialist Linda Curtis, who likened it to yelling "fire!" in a theater.
It's not clear why hoaxers play these cruel tricks. In some cases, with a storm/bad weather hoax for instance, it may be to induce victims to buy emergency equipment or supplies.
But more often it seems the idea is just to create a panic, with the hoaxer getting a kick out of knowing he or she caused it. And it's always more convincing in the wake of a recent, similar incident.
But panic causes stress, which can result in accidents or even death, to say nothing of needless costs and business disruption.
Plus, of course, a side effect of hoaxes is that when a real alert is issued, people are not sure whether to believe it or not and may delay taking vital action -- the "cry wolf" syndrome.
If you live in an area that may be prone to natural disasters, there are a number of steps you can take to double check any rumors you hear about impending trouble, and to prepare for the real thing.
Even top experts can never predict the timing or precise location of an earthquake. They're not much better at predicting major volcanic eruptions either!
The most likely locations are along geological fault lines and the longer these remain quiet, the greater the risk of a major quake. But even this is not a fool-proof formula.
USGS says on its website (details below): "Neither the USGS nor Caltech nor any other scientists have ever predicted a major earthquake. They do not know how, and they do not expect to know how any time in the foreseeable future.
"However, based on scientific data, probabilities can be calculated for potential future earthquakes. For example, scientists estimate that over the next 30 years the probability of a major EQ occurring in the San Francisco Bay area is 67% and 60% in Southern California."
So, if you receive an imminent warning message, it's likely an earthquake hoax. Don't pass it on.
For more information on vulnerable locations and how to prepare for earthquakes, visit USGS.
Other countries, of course, also have similar sites, which you can find online.
Tsunamis are generally a consequence of earthquakes and undersea volcanoes, so they can only be predicted after the incident occurs.
Often, there's very little time between the two, so email messages warning of an impending tsunami, especially days away, should be treated with suspicion.
A tsunami hoax sometimes is linked to a natural, astronomical event, like a passing comet or solar eclipse, with hoaxers claiming the incident will precipitate the characteristic huge waves of a tsunami.
There's no scientific foundation for this claim.
Genuine tsunami alerts are usually broadcast on TV (normally with on-screen "crawlers") and radio. Coastal state, city and county governments in vulnerable areas generally also have their own warning and evacuation programs.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has lead responsibility for issuing tsunami warnings in the US, and is also a key player in tsunami observations and research.
Visit their site, both for more information and to check out any alerts you receive.
Weather Hoax: Hurricanes, Tornadoes and Other Storms
We know storms and twisters strike at certain times of the year and in particular areas. But we never know their precise route or timing until the last moment.
The advent of the Internet and, especially email, has led to an increase in the circulation of rumors that claim to predict exactly what is going to happen.
Bogus, official-looking severe winter weather warnings are particularly common. Again, who knows why people do this?
Sometimes, though, storm warnings are not even hoaxes, just well-intended hunches and speculation that accumulate credibility the more they are passed around.
The bad news is that they can lead people to take action that lands them into real trouble -- for instance, by getting caught up in panic evacuations or even moving from relative safety straight into the path of a storm.
The best sources of reliable information on storm strikes are local and national TV stations (like the Weather Channel), the National Weather Service and the National Hurricane Center (both part of NOAA).
If you live in a vulnerable area, you should always be prepared for a storm to strike -- and have an action plan for your family, but beware of acting too fast, without checking reports first. It could be a weather hoax.
Every year, genuine natural disasters underline that we live on a fragile and unpredictable planet, but, for most of us, most of the time, it's actually a safe and stable environment.
By always checking with the official sources we've listed here, you can avoid jumping the gun on an earthquake hoax or a weather hoax.
Time to conclude for today -- have a great week!