Is it Real, or is it Internet?

For those of you too young to remember, there was no digital media in the 1970s. People listened to prerecorded music on magnetic tape. You know…cassettes.  One famous series of commercials for Memorex brand cassettes suggested that the tape had such high audio fidelity, you would not be able to distinguish between the recording and the live event.  After showing you a snippet of famous performers (Ella Fitgerald, Chuck Mangione, others), the announcer would ask, “Is it live, or is it Memorex?”

Today there is such a glut of made up stories floating around online masquerading as fact, that many people  have trouble discerning true and false. Take the following story, which appeared in my Facebook feed today,  for example:

A True Story Serve as a Warning

To the men: warn your loved ones!

To the women: remember this!

About a month ago there was a woman standing by the Mega Mall entrance passing out flyers to all the women going in. The woman had written the flyer herself to tell about an experience she had, so that she might warn other women.

The previous day, this woman had finished shopping, went out to her car and discovered that she had a flat. She got the jack out of the trunk and began to change the flat.

A nice man dressed in business suit and carrying a briefcase walked up to her and said, “I notice you’re changing a flat tire. Would you like me to take care of it for you?” The woman was grateful for his offer and accepted his help. They chatted amiably while the man changed the flat, and then put the flat tire and the jack in the trunk, shut it and dusted his hands off.

The woman thanked him profusely, and as she was about to get in her car, the man told her that he left his car around on the other side of the mall, and asked if she would mind giving him a lift to his car. She was a little surprised and asked him why his car was on other side. He explained that he had seen an old friend in the mall that he hadn’t seen for some time and they had a bite to eat and visited for a while; he got turned around in the mall and left through the wrong exit, and now he was running late and his car was clear around on the other side of the mall.

The woman hated to tell him “no” because he had just rescued her from having to change her flat tire all by herself, but she felt uneasy. Then she remembered seeing the man put his briefcase in her trunk before shutting it and before he asked her for a ride to his car. She told him that she’d be happy to drive him to his car, but she just remembered one last thing she needed to buy. She said she would only be a few minutes; he could sit down in her car and wait for her; she would be as quick as she could be.

She hurried into the mall, and told a security guard what had happened; the guard came out to her car with her, but the man had left. They opened the trunk, took out his locked briefcase and took it down to the police station. The police opened it (ostensibly to look for ID so they could return it to the man)… What they found was rope, duct tape and knives. When the police checked her “flat” tire, there was nothing wrong with it; the air had simply been let out. It was obvious what the man’s motive was, and obvious that he had carefully thought it out in advance.

The woman was blessed to have escaped harm. How much worse it would have been had she waited in the car while the man fixed the tire, or if she had a baby strapped into a car seat. Or if she’d gone against her judgment and given him a lift.

I’d like you to forward/share this to all the women you know. It may save a life.

I was going to send this to the ladies only; but guys, if you love your mothers, wives, sisters, daughters, etc., you may want to pass this messages to them, as well.

REMEMBER and make it a HABIT to PRAY! and PRAY! and PRAY!!!

A sobering story, if true. But is it true?  It seems to be missing all the crucial details that would characterize an incident report in the mainstream press. Consider:

1. There is no date or location given. In what city and state did this occur?  There is a reference to “the Mega Mall.”  But that could refer to any large mall, or to a place called The Mega Mall in Lansing Michigan; or to The Mall of America; or to Bert’s Mega Mall in California; or to the SM MegaMall in the Philippines. It’s hard to verify a story that could have happened anywhere in the world. That’s why newspaper reports of crimes or attempted crimes always begin with the dateline; a notation at the beginning of an article giving the date and location.  Granted, the writer says “about a month ago,”, but would be more meaningful if I hadn’t first heard this tale over ten years ago.  In the version I first heard, it was duffel bag in the back seat, not a briefcase in the trunk, and it was a mall local to me, but it was identical in all other respects.

2. There are no names. The would-be victim is not given a name. Even Robin “last name withheld” or Suzy “named change to protect her privacy” would be more typical of a real news item than simply “the woman.”  And what is the name of the security guard who was involved?  Surely he was interviewed. And to what police station was this reported?  Their records would corroborate this story. Perhaps they could provide information on whether there had been similar occurrences in the area before or since.  And wouldn’t the police have tried a “lost and found” ruse to get the owner of the briefcase to come claim it? I’m no expert on the legalities of their opening the locked briefcase under the circumstances. But given that they did, and found suspicious contents, would they not have dusted the case and its contents for fingerprints, along with the wheel and jack in the woman’s trunk? Someone reporting on an incident from “about a month ago” could easily include information like this.

3.  There are security cameras everywhere these days. Were there none at the mall?  What, if anything, did they show? Was the woman interviewed by her local media?  If so, there’s probably a newspaper report or a You tube video of it somewhere.

In the absence of all the aforementioned information, this story might as well begin “Once upon a time.”  Now there is nothing wrong with a good piece of fiction that is clearly labeled as such. But to peddle fiction as fact is wrong. And do we really need to make up a scary story in order to encourage people to pray?  Finally, if people are easily convinced that these undying Internet stories are true, it suggests they might be easy prey for con artists. And in the financial world, there are plenty of those.   That’s next.