Have you seen Penny Brown?
You may have been looking for her if you are one of the hundreds of thousands of people who got the following e-mail, with the subject line "Please look at this picture then forward":
I am asking you all, begging you to please, forward this email on to anyone and everyone you know, PLEASE. My 9 year old girl, Penny Brown, is missing. She has been missing for now two weeks. It is still not too late. Please help us. If anyone anywhere knows anything, sees anything, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org I am including a picture of her. All prayers are appreciated!! It only takes 2 seconds to forward this on, if it was your child, you would want all the help you could get. Please. Thank you for your kindness, hopefully you can help us.
Poor little Penny Brown. Not only is she missing, she doesn't even exist.
The fake e-mail has circulated for years, and there is no missing child by that name. Penny Brown may be America's best-known non-existent missing child. There are only a handful of chain e-mails that feature actual missing kids, and most of those children were recovered months or years ago.
Hoax e-mails seem to have been increasing in the last few months. Most e-mail hoaxes are warnings of some sort, either asking for the public's help to find a missing person, or cautioning them against some lurking nonexistent danger.
For example, last week in Grand Rapids, Michigan, an e-mail warned that women driving between Plainfield Avenue and 3 Mile Road had been approached by an armed man who enters his victims' vehicle. The women are then driven to a nearby park and raped. The e-mail ends by saying that the warning is not a hoax (of course), and that the assaults had been verified by the police. The local police, meanwhile, said that they had received dozens of calls from concerned citizen, but that the e-mail was a hoax and no such crime has been reported.
Though the e-mail notices and warnings are sometimes recognized as hoaxes, people will often forward them to friends and family "just to be on the safe side."
In late May, a hoax e-mail was taken so seriously that it actually all but shut down the nightlife in the Mexican city of Ciudad Juarez for a weekend.
An anonymous e-mail circulated a warning that gunmen were planning to drive around the city and target anyone in nightclubs, malls, restaurants, parks, and other public places. The e-mail cautioned people to stay home. A few patrons ignored the hoax, but businesses were nearly empty all weekend. The prank not only alarmed citizens of this already-violent city, but also took an economic toll. The owner of a Juarez auto parts store said his business fell by over half, and that residents feared for their lives.
These e-mails are created by pranksters and forwarded by well-meaning people who think they are doing the right thing by warning others. Yet there are few if any real cases of actual crimes have been averted (or missing persons found) through a chain e-mail.
Most hoaxed e-mails are actually pretty easy to spot. The "please forward" or "urgent!!!" subject lines are red flags, and if it's asking you to find a missing kid or avoid a local mall because of rapists who hide under your car and slash your ankles, you can be virtually certain it's fake. More information on hoax chain e-mails can be found at the Urban Legends Reference Page (www.snopes.com) and Breakthechain.org.
As always, the best information about missing kids and neighborhood dangers comes from police and the local news, not an e-mail forwarded through your best friend's cousin's aunt's hairdresser's husband.
Benjamin Radford is a writer, filmmaker, and board game designer; his latest project can be found at PlayingGods.com .