The Growth of an Urban Legend

Over the last couple of weeks I have been intrigued to watch how an urban myth has morphed into “fact”. It all started when a chain-email started to spread through the Internet with this message :-
*It has been confirmed by Royal Mail and the Trading Standards Office are making people aware of the following scam:

A card is posted through your door from a company called PDS (Parcel Delivery Service) suggesting that they were unable to deliver a parcel and that you need to contact them on 0906 6611911 (a premium rate number). DO NOT call this number, as this is a mail scam originating from Belize.

If you call the number and you start to hear a recorded message you will already have been billed £15 for the phone call.

If you do receive a card with these details, then please contact Royal Mail Fraud on 02072396655 or ICSTIS (the premium rate service regulator) at www.icstis.org.uk <http://www.icstis.org.uk/>
*
The truth about this warning is that the particular company, scam and telephone number were closed down in 2005 and the part about the immediate £15 is just untrue.

The trouble with this particular email is that it has spread out into the “real world” and is being reported as a fact by organisations who should know better. These include various police forces, local councils, Neighbourhood Watch schemes and some newspapers.

You would have thought that the police at least would have made some background checks before passing on this “warning” .

This situation has become so bad that* Phonepayplus* (the new name for ICSTIS) have had to issue a press release telling everyone that the whole thing is hogwash and please stop spreading the story around. Snopes is not very helpful in this case. It’s marking the story as “true” because of the fact that the scam was sort of operating in 2005. You have to scroll down the page before learning that it’s an old and out-of-date story and to see the announcement from Phonepayplus.

This same thing happened last year, with the magazine *Computer Active * running a story with the headline “Authorities Duped By False Warning”.
All this just shows how a false story can turn into a cast-iron “fact”

There’s something about the human mind that just latches on to these things - and having swallowed them whole, defend and promote them beyond reason.

This particular example isn’t helped by having the ‘true’ stamp on it at Snopes.

-People read ‘true’ and stop there - without bothering to read on and discover that it has been shut down.

I’ve had to slap this down on a couple of forums this week - to be fair, although the specific scam is dead, it’s the sort of thing that keeps popping up. Useful as a general warning.

At least one newspaper has realised the whole thing is a hoax, and has now published the following story :- Wigan Today