Aussie hoax slayer smashes web scams
It was the great Chocolate Bar Bomb scare. Last month an anonymous email, breathlessly titled "Cadbury HALAL Please read! & Forward", hit in-boxes around the country, warning recipients of a sinister link between Australian-made chocolates and Islamic terrorism.
Claiming to be "absolute fact", the email urged consumers to boycott products marked with the logo of the Halal Certification Authority Australia.
According to the email, companies that paid the HCAA, which certifies food as fit for consumption by Muslims, were "supporting a religion that is actively trying to destroy the Australian way ... [and] may be supporting terrorism."
But the email, which sparked an anti-Islamic backlash on Queensland radio, was false, one of many such bogus messages debunked by an Australian website, Hoax-Slayer. The site, which started in 2003 and now boasts a million visitors a month, is the work of Queenslander Brett Christensen.
A former caravan park cleaner, Mr Christensen, 46, has fast become the cyber-world's Clark Kent, a soft-spoken father of two who single-handedly smashes scams from the comfort of his home in Bundaberg.
"The emails can be politically or religiously motivated," he said. "They can also be corporate sabotage or simply trying to rip people off or waste their time."
You name it, Mr Christensen has seen it: Nigerian fraudsters, fake charities and dating scams, urban legends and bogus petitions. There was the "Cancer Tips From Johns Hopkins" hoax, the fake Marks & Spencer giveaway, and, most recently, a "confidential inter-office memo" from "Robert Trugabe", manager at a McDonald's outlet in South Australia, who implored his staff to deliberately leave out items from orders to cut costs.
"Most hoaxes are variations on the same scam," Mr Christensen said. "But by changing background stories they are constantly reworked, thereby gaining new victims."
Mr Christensen started the site after being caught by the Budweiser Frogs virus hoax in late 2002. ''I sent the virus warning to all my contacts and then was embarrassed and annoyed to find it was fake.''
He now works full-time on the site, which makes about A$50,000 a year in advertising. He also produces a Hoax-Slayer newsletter that goes out to 30,000 subscribers. Most of the scams are sent to him from around world, up to 900 emails a week "from people who have been ripped off or want to know if something is true or not."
Mr Christensen uses government or company publications and consumer alerts for his research, plus press releases and credible websites. Unlike the hoaxes, he typically includes in-text hyperlinks and separate references that allow readers to check the information themselves.
While his site is not without precedent - Snopes.com, aka the Urban Legends Reference Page, has been going since 1995 - Hoax-Slayer also includes a section dedicated to apparently ludicrous emails that are actually true.
Buzz Aldrin really did perform a Communion service, featuring wine and wafers, on the Moon in 1969, armless Arizona woman Jessica Cox is indeed the first pilot in the US to be licensed to fly using only her feet, and the mysterious ''sailing stones'' of Death Valley do move by themselves.
Even the dreaded chain email has some validity. Australia's Autism Advisory and Support Service, the Animal Rescue Site and America's The Breast Cancer Site have all used such emails to raise money and awareness. "Even though there are lots of hoaxes out there, it pays not to become too cynical," Mr Christensen said.
Sydney Morning Herald