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New Toyota Troubles: Copycat Complaints?

In the latest chapter of the runaway Toyota mystery, a man named James Sikes claimed that the accelerator on his 2008 Prius got stuck on March 8, at times reaching nearly 100 mph before he managed to stop the car using both the emergency and regular brakes. Sikes's account made national news, though questions about his story have recently surfaced.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration investigated the matter and concluded that its engineers had "not been able to find anything to explain the incident that Mr. Sikes reported." The investigation into his complaint is ongoing, but often when engineers can't recreate a claimed incident of mechanical malfunction, it means someone's not telling the truth. If Mr. Sikes did indeed fake or hoax his vehicle problems, he would not be the first.

Copycat Complaints

Copycat complaints often occur in the wake of widely publicized events, especially of defective or tampered products. Typically one or two high-profile "index cases" appear in the public's eye, leading a few other people who bought the same product to think, "Hey, that could have happened to me, too!" and pretend that it did.

This situation causes headaches for investigators trying to figure out what happened and how – every false, mistaken, or hoax case only muddies the water and delays finding the real cause of the problem. Hoaxes are also difficult for the product's manufacturer, whose public image is damaged by every new claim that makes the news – whether valid or fraudulent. Often it's only the headline "body count" numbers that the public pays attention to: People remember hearing that 50 deaths were attributed to runaway Toyotas, but if some (or even most) of the 50 are eventually revealed to have been caused by other factors, the public will still remember the original number.

The 1993 Pepsi scare

One of the most famous cases of hoax copycat complaints occurred in 1993 when a Tacoma, Wash., couple found a syringe inside a Diet Pepsi that had been opened and left out overnight. When they discovered it, the couple called their lawyer, who alerted the press. From there the story snowballed. As Time magazine writer Anastasia Toufexis wrote, "Jangling deep in the psyche of some souls, it appears, is an irresistible urge to be certified on the 5 o'clock news as a victim, a stoic survivor of sinister forces... Within days, similar reports poured in from around the country: more than 50 complaints in 23 states. In New York City, a man claimed that he accidentally swallowed two pins that were in a Pepsi bottle. In Beach City, Ohio, a woman said she found a sewing needle in a can of the soft drink."

The Washington couple's Diet Pepsi was only a harbinger of many contaminated soft drinks – or was it? "Even as cases mounted, many were being exposed as hoaxes ," Toufexis noted. "By week's end more than a dozen people had been arrested for making false reports. Among them were a Colorado woman and South Carolina man who were captured on video by store security cameras putting objects in cans; others were admitting they lied."

Why we play victim

There are many reasons why a person might pretend to have been the victim of a scary or dangerous product. Money is of course a big motivation: Pepsi and Toyota have deep pockets, and potential "victims" assume that multinational companies will happily pay a few hundred thousand dollars to avoid bad publicity.

For many, however, the real motivation is simply attention. Some people want to be part of a story they see unfolding in the national news. Others just like pulling a prank to see how far they can take it, assuming either that they won't get caught, or that little will happen if they are caught.

Often, they are right. In cases of copycat complaints, there's little a company can do unless the hoaxer demands money, in which case, he or she can be charged with extortion. Otherwise, it's merely a minor offense of filing a false report. Whether Sikes's incident is a real incident or copycat report remains to be determined, but investigators are watching for hoaxes.

Benjamin Radford is managing editor of the Skeptical Inquirer science magazine. His books, films, and other projects can be found on his website. His Bad Science column appears regularly on LiveScience.