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Old e-mail hoax in scary revival

October 12, 2001

WARNING: E-mail alerts cautioning you not to open a mailed blue envelope because it contains a lethal sponge are a hoax. Please forward this to all you know.

A debunked e-mail message that first surfaced early last year has reappeared and spread exponentially since the Sept. 11 attacks, despite notices about the hoax from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Postal Service.

The message, usually labeled "WARNING," advises recipients to beware of blue envelopes. In one version, the recommendation is attributed to "the mother of a friend of mine who works for a hospital in Passaic NJ," and reports that "there have been 11 deaths and over 25 more people waiting to die."

There have been no such cases reported at any of the three hospitals in Passaic.

Another version of the e-mail says the source of the warning is "Schwab corporate headquarters -- so it's no joke." In this version, the packages are labeled "A Gift for You from the Klingerman Foundation." There is no Klingerman Foundation.

"The e-mail is a hoax," says the CDC in a posting that first appeared in May 2000 on its "current health-related hoaxes and rumors" page. "There is no 'Klingerman virus,' and the information in the e-mail notice is untrue. . . . Please do not forward it to others." A reporter inquiring Thursday about the e-mail warning was directed to the Web site.

The Postal Service also placed information about the "false 'Klingerman virus' e-mail rumor" on its Web site in May of last year.

But the false warning is spreading and mutating like the biological threat it purports to describe. Some variations refer to the Kinderman Foundation, others to a disease like dysentery, others to a chemical that kills instantly, or a powdery substance that causes a rash and then a coma.

"The proximity in time to a disaster makes us at once more skittish and more gullible," said Angus Gillespie, professor of American studies at Rutgers University.

Folklorists call such stories, whether spread by word of mouth or fax or Internet, "urban legends" because a legend is "a belief tale," he said. They are close enough to the truth to seem plausible, yet somehow twist the truth. People have to decide whether to watch out for blue envelopes and warn others or delete the message.

The spread of this message via computer makes it seem more official, and therefore more believable, he says.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation and the federal Centers for Disease Control are investigating three cases of anthrax exposure, including one death, at the headquarters of America Media Inc. in Florida. The e-mails circulating predate those infections by more than a year, and have resurfaced in January and September.

The Florida anthrax investigation so far has not discovered how the infectious spores entered the building.

Nevertheless, some people are taking the e-mail warnings seriously enough to spread them to everyone in their address books.

With luck they won't suffer the fate of a terrified Maine resident, who called 911 after receiving a free sample sponge from the Handyman Club of America in the mail.

Police, fire, and ambulance units responded, sealing off the area within half a mile of his home. They took him outside, stripped him down to his shorts and sprayed him with a fire hose before sending him to the hospital.

He was fine.

The CDC suggests that if you are concerned about the contents of something you receive in the mail, call the local post office. It is a crime to send potentially hazardous agents through the mail for the purpose of causing harm to human health.

By LINDY WASHBURN. Copyright © 2001 North Jersey Media Group Inc.


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