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9 most popular e-mail hoaxes

Ever wondered if anyone makes the money promised in those work-at-home advertisements? Or if each forwarded e-mail will really mean a donation of 10 cents from Microsoft to an orphan's organ-transplant operation? The answer is no. These stories are urban legends, e-mail rumors and scams. They are but a few of what we like to call financial fiction. The following are some of the most popular and most creative bits of the financial fiction waiting in in-boxes nationally.

Neiman Marcus's expensive cookie recipe
Here's what happened. My Aunt Cynthia was having lunch at Neiman Marcus with my cousin. For dessert they had these delicious cookies and my aunt asked the waitress for the recipe. The waitress said the recipe sold for "two fifty." My Aunt thought that meant $2.50, and said OK. But when she got her bill they charged her $250. She was furious but they wouldn't refund her money. So in revenge, she's giving away the recipe to anyone who wants it.

Can you believe that? You can? Sucker. It never happened. But this rumor has been circulating for decades. A similar story about a $25 red velvet cake recipe has been traced as far back as the 1940s. If you want the cookie recipe, Neiman Marcus has gotten so sick of the bad press about this false rumor that the company posted the recipe on its Web site.

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Forwarded e-mail for money or donations
Microsoft and Disney are both beta-testing an e-mail tracker and will send you money if you forward this e-mail. The Gap is testing an e-mail tracker and will send you a gift certificate. The Red Cross is using its e-mail tracker and will donate money for some poor kid's operation or to raise a fund for an orphan. If you believe any of these stories, I have some bad news for you. There is no such thing as an e-mail tracker. Coke won't send you free cans. Gerber won't send you savings bonds. Cracker Barrel won't send you gift certificates. A Britney Spears video won't pop up as the result of you forwarding an e-mail. And AOL has a public relations department that gets news out a lot more efficiently than any chain mail ever could. You get nothing but the embarrassment of knowing that everyone you forward this e-mail to will think you're a fool.

Nigerian scam letter
Greetings, Sir. I got your e-mail address from a very confidential source -- the Internet. I am the prince, minister and Grand Pooh-bah of one of many foreign nations that you stupid Americans have never heard of. There is a billion, kazillion dollars in an account here that rightfully belongs to my family and my people. Due to some horrid-bloody military coup in which my entire family, several accountants and various goats lost their lives, I cannot reach this money. But you, an American who has never heard of my country, can march right into the corner branch of God-Forsaken-War-Torn-West-of-Nowhere-Africa and deposit this money right into your fat American bank account. For your trouble, I'll give you a few million off the top -- because what's a few million between confidential best friends who have never actually even heard of one another?

OK, let's start from the top. Do not kid yourself. You are not so important that the High Priest of Anywhere will e-mail you requesting help. Rid yourself of your delusions of grandeur -- or as we say back home, you may sing "Like a Virgin" into your hairbrush every night, but that doesn't make you Madonna.

Here's what will happen when you give strangers your bank account information: They will take your money. Period. End of story. You get nothing, but you lose a lot.

Work at home
Old scam, new format. You should immediately run from anyone who promises lots of money for little work that requires no experience. While there are companies that allow their employees to work from home, they require job skills and interviews, just like regular jobs. Work-at-home scams will ask you to purchase supplies and equipment from them to perform the "job." That's how they make their money. You will lose -- not make -- money.

You won! And you didn't even enter!
How can you take anything seriously that uses so many exclamation marks?!!!!! Guess what!!!!! You didn't win anything!!!! These people will try to finagle money out of you by saying you need to pay taxes or fees to collect your prize!!!!! Or they will give you a free trip that requires you to buy very expensive airline tickets through their agency!!!! Don't be a sucker!!!!!

You'll receive $5,000 for sending $25
Here's how it works. Send $5 to the five people on the list or to the address that will send you the "reports." In return for your money you'll get -- nothing -- because this is a scam. Well, maybe you'll get something -- a conviction for mail fraud because this is illegal.

Tricking the traffic court
The Web-watching site Truthorfiction.com reports that a rumor is currently circling e-mail accounts claiming that there's a sneaky way to keep a traffic ticket off your driving record: pay a little more than the amount on the ticket. The court will send you a refund check. If you don't cash the check, the computer won't mark your case as closed and the ticket will never show up on your record. This idea is great in theory, lousy in reality. It doesn't work. Here's a way to keep tickets off your record that does work: Slow down.

Tax or long-distance charges on e-mail
You got a forwarded e-mail from your friend that says you will soon be charged for your long-distance e-mails, just like you are charged for long-distance phone calls. Oh, really? And what will the phone company use to compute you bill -- its e-mail tracker? Calm down. No one is going to charge you long distance for your e-mails. This is an e-mail myth.

Clinton got rid of IRS -- no more taxes
That sneaky Bill Clinton -- did you know that when he wasn't gallivanting about with interns he was busy getting Congress to pass secret legislation that would forgive all debts and abolish the Internal Revenue Service? Alan Greenspan was going to announce it on Sept. 11, 2001, but didn't because of the terrorist attacks. Oh, wishful thinking -- or maybe not. A move like that is the equivalent of tossing what's left of our economy into a vast financial toilet and flushing with the combined might of the National Football League. In the plausible department, this rumor, reported by Truthorfiction.com, is right up there with alien cattle mutilations and Cameron Diaz spending a Friday night alone at home, eating Ben & Jerry's because she couldn't get a date -- completely ridiculous.

How about you? Do you have any financial fictitious e-mails to share? If so, send them to: financial-fiction@bankrate.com

-- Updated: April 13, 2004
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See Also
Top 10 investing scams
Top 10 ways Americans get scammed
Financial advice glossary
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