warningDo you believe everything you hear? This attitude might have been common a few ears ago, but we now have to be careful what we believe. We now have instant access to vast amounts of information, and not all of it is true.

When we hear about hoaxes which have been around for a while, they always seem obvious and we wonder how people ever fell for them. In the heat of the moment however, it can be difficult to tell.

In this article I’ll talk about some hoaxes which you might already know, and which might not seem so misleading at first sight. Hopefully this way, next time you see something suspicious you’ll be able to assess whether or not it’s a hoax.

Cacti absorb radiation from computers

The mythical cactus! Who hasn’t put a cactus near their computer to protect them from the dangerous radiation given off by the screen?

This information has been going around for decades, long before flat screens were so widespread. Apparently, if you put a small cactus near your screen, it protects you by absorbing radiation.

A cactus will not protect you from radiation, unless you place it between you and the screen (Photo: Flickr, Liz21UK)

A cactus will not protect you from radiation, unless you place it between you and the screen (Photo: Flickr, Liz21UK)

The only way it will protect you from radiation is by putting it in between you and the screen, which would make it a bit hard to see.

Although it’s true that cacti withstand certain types of radiation better than other plants, there’s no use having one beside your computer, as they do nothing to draw radiation toward them.

Besides, radiation from computer screens is not hardmful. There are basically two types of radiation: visible radiation (i.e. the light that you see), and infra-red radiation from the heat which they generate.

You can rest assured that neither you nor your cactus will come to any harm.

Entering your PIN backwards

A while ago now, there was a rumour that if you were approached by robbers at a cash machine, you could alert the authorities by entering your PIN backwards. Supposedly, the cash machine would continue to work normally so the thief wouldn’t suspect anything, but the police would be on their way.

Entering your PIN backwards at the cash machine won’t alert the authorities (Photo: Flickr, William Grootonk)

Entering your PIN backwards at the cash machine won’t alert the authorities (Photo: Flickr, William Grootonk)

This ingenious technique is of course false. No bank has ever acknowledged using this system to detect robberies. I mean, think about it: What if your PIN was something like 1221? How would the system know if you were entering it backwards or not?

As you can see, it’s a fully-fledged hoax which has generated hundreds of calls to the authorities from people asking if it’s true, and probably quite a few cards being bocked after people have tried it.

Making popcorn with your mobile

Have you ever heard that if you arrange several mobile phones in a circle, you can cook popcorn in the middle? Hopefully you’ve never tried, otherwise you’d probably still be waiting now.

As you might have imagined, mobile phones don’t emit microwaves with enough power to cook popcorn.  To do that you’d need a microwave magnetron.

To give you an idea of the magnitudes involved, a microwave emits around 800 W, while a BQ Aquaris E5 HD emits around 0.28 W/kg. Evidently, even ten phones in a circle would not give enough energy to even warm a popcorn kernel slightly, never mind make it pop.

The hoax became widespread due to a video which purported to show  popcorn being cooked inside a circle of mobile phones.  However it was an elaborate set-up using high-power components taken from microwaves.

PlayStations and Saddam Hussein

Can an innocent games console become a powerful weapon in the wrong hands? That is what we were led to believe toward the end of the year 2000.

At that time, just before the Christmas period, the rumour emerged that Saddam Hussein had bought 4,000 PlayStation 2s, with the aim of setting up a new military program which would use the processing power of these machines.

Another famous hoax was Saddam Hussein’s plan to build a supercomputer out of PlayStation 2s.

Another famous hoax was Saddam Hussein’s plan to build a supercomputer out of PlayStation 2s.

Apparently the idea was to combine all of the consoles to create a supercomputer which could run complex weapons programs, long-range missiles, or control unmanned aerial vehicles.

It all turned out to be another hoax, albeit a very original one. You can still find the original articles if you search on Google.

The mobile phone giveaway

This hoax has become very widespread, especially since the dawn of social networks. They all follow the same pattern: the company needs to sell a product (usually a mobile device) which has a slight defect (like dented packaging, illegible labels…), and they have decided to give them away to its followers.

These hoaxes are always accompanied by a photo of the supposed devices in order to reel people in.

Obviously, the competition is fake, but it’s a quick way of gaining followers on social media.

You’ll have to pay for WhatsApp unless you forward this message to 50 people

Each generation has its own hoax to do with a free service: a few years ago it was Hotmail, before that it was MSN Messenger… If you think about it, it doesn’t make much sense for a company about to start charging for its services to let you know how to avoid paying, and then to encourage you to share it with the whole world…

The hoax where you have to forward a message to stop a free service becoming paid is a very typical one.

The hoax where you have to forward a message to stop a free service becoming paid is a very typical one.

As you’ll have guessed, this is another hoax. No matter how many times people are warned of the hoax, thousands of people forward the message each time it surfaces, creating chains with hundreds of email addresses which spammers can then take advantage of.

Don’t trust these types of messages. If the terms and conditions of any of these services were to change, you would receive an official communication from the company . In no case would this communication be word of mouth, which would be unprofessional to say the least.

Now that you’re aware of some of the most typical hoaxes circulating online, here are some recommendations to help you identify them in the future.

How to know if something is a hoax

  • They normally give no clues to when they were written, meaning they can circulate online for as long as possible.
  • Also they don’t usually cite an author or any official sources, which could lead to legal consequences.
  • They also often contain spelling mistakes.
  • What’s more, there’s almost always something to reel you in: a gift, a prize, or some sort of penalty for not doing so. Sometimes however they come in the form of fake headlines aiming to become viral.
  • In order to achieve this aim, you are asked to share it. If you are not sure whether something is fake but you still want to share it via email, you should add the recipients in the Bcc: field. This way they will still receive the message but nobody will be able to get the list of email addresses. Your contacts will thank you for it.

I hope you’ve found this article interesting and that it will help you spot a hoax next time you come across one. If you know of any more, let us know in the comments section!

Carlos Ávila is an information systems administrator with 10 years of experience in the field. Passionate about science and technology, he maintains his own blog which he uses to share his knowledge about the subject. He also collaborates with BQ, writing articles related to smartphones, tablets, networks and technology.