The modern myths and legends that started life in your inbox

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The warning apparently came from South Yorkshire Police and the details were particularly chilling.

While filling up her car, a woman was approached on the petrol forecourt by a man offering his services as a painter and decorator. She politely declined, but accepted his business card.

Leaving the service station she noticed she was being followed. In the car behind was the bogus painter and decorator and another man. Almost immediately she began to feel dizzy and the car filled with a strong odour.

Realising the smell was on her hand, the same hand with which she had accepted the business card she wound down the window and pulled into a nearby driveway.

She honked her horn for help, the men drove away, but further investigation revealed the card had been laced with a substance called burundanga, used by criminals to incapacitate their victims. So concerned were police they issued an email advising people to be vigilant and urged those who received it to send it onto all their female friends and colleagues.

Except, South Yorkshire Police didn’t issue any warning. There was no need. The incident never happened, it was just another example of an urban myth gone viral.

“There has been a huge surge in urban legends over the last 10 years,” says Tom Harris, a contributor to the online site How Stuff Works. “In the past a story was reinterpreted by each person who passed it on. Now you just click the forward icon. Having the original story provides an air of legitimacy. You might not know the original author, but there is a sense they are speaking directly to you.”

A quick search on Google is enough to dispel most rumours. The burundanga story first started doing the rounds four years ago. Back then it was Texas, but aside from a change of location the details remained the same. However, in the time it took for anyone to realise the warning was fake, it had already landed in thousands of inboxes.

“For those behind these pranks, the thrill is seeing how far a legend will spread,” says Tom. “Cautionary legends are very common, because even a sceptical person might forward it on just in case it’s true. Often they include details designed to make the email look authentic and it can be difficult to spot a hoax. However, if a message begins with, ‘This is not a hoax or urban legend’ it probably is’.”

The burundanga warning joins a long list of urban myths which have found extended life on the internet. A few years ago, there were reports of brides to be being offered huge amounts of cash because Posh and Becks wanted the same venue (substitute any country house/stately home/castle in the country) for their own nuptials the very same weekend. Most are harmless stuff, but every so often a throwaway story has unintended consequences.

Last year a Chinese restaurant in South Yorkshire feared it may have to close after a rumours a female diner had choked on a greyhound identification chip began to circulate. There was not truth to the story, but reservations dropped 20 per cent.

“By definition urban legends seem to have a life of their own,” adds Tom. “They creep through society one person at a time, adapting to changing conditions. It will always be human nature to tell bizarre stories and there will always be an audience waiting to believe them. The urban legend is part of our make-up.”