Attention shoppers: That e-mail is a hoax

Staff WriterFebruary 11, 2011 

  • RUMOR: An e-mail hoax said there were more than 140 robberies at Raleigh Walmarts in recent weeks.

    REALITY: Raleigh police have received reports of 19 robberies in Walmart parking lots since 2006. This year, since Jan 1, only one has been reported. In that case, the victim reported her purse being stolen by a woman. Police arrested a suspect.

    THE BUZZ: According to Snopes .com , a website that debunks urban legends, false e-mail alerts alleging robberies by Hispanic gangs at big box stores such as Walmart have persisted since 2005. The rumors have sparked alarm from Memphis to Chicago.

— Rumors spread by e-mail can be like gnats: When you try to swat them away, more seem to appear.

Raleigh police have been swatting all week, trying to quell an e-mail hoax that "gangs from Mexico" have been robbing shoppers by gunpoint in Walmart parking lots across Raleigh.

Within days, the e-mail messages have pinged every corner of Wake County. In one string, a deacon at Providence Baptist Church sent the e-mail rumor to his wife, who forwarded it to the senior pastor's wife, who sent it to groups of ladies at the church. One of them sent it to a friend in Knightdale, who alerted her garden club.

"When these things get into mass distribution lists, it ramps up," said Raleigh police spokesman Jim Sughrue. "It's almost impossible to stop."

Raleigh police scratched their heads and wondered if they'd missed some sort of trend. Then they ran the statistics on their database to make sure there were no mass robberies.

Still, the calls kept coming to Sughrue. Three reporters from The News & Observer phoned. So did reporters at local TV stations.

Finally, Sughrue did something unusual: He disseminated a media advisory to declare something a non-event.

To many, the e-mail messages apparently seemed plausible. The original note, signed by a woman named Linda McDaniel, described a church friend's robbery at gunpoint at a Walmart on New Hope Church Road. She then shared more information and tips from the Raleigh police officer who allegedly responded.

In the hoax, the writer describes more than 100 such robberies at a single Walmart in Raleigh and dozens more at another location. She said police didn't alert people because that "would be racial profiling."

There are several phone listings for a Linda McDaniel in and around Raleigh. Most of those phone numbers were disconnected; messages left at other numbers were not returned.

Why people fall for it

Experts say e-mail hoaxes work because they play on fears people already entertain.

In this instance, as the e-mail went from person to person, senders added commentary, such as having seen Mexicans outside a store.

Here's the truth as best Raleigh police can tell: Only one person has been robbed this year in a Walmart parking lot. That robber was not Hispanic. Or a man.

And she didn't use a gun.

News researcher Brooke Cain contributed to this report.

mandy.locke@newsobserver.com or 919-829-8927

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