Now, Internet rumours and urban legends can be more harmful than ever, and businesses need to be able to respond to them quickly, researchers say.
North Americans, constantly getting information from different sources, are beset with "information overload," said Connie Chesner, an Internet rumours specialist at Wake Forest University.
"When you're overloaded and an e-mail forward comes to your inbox from a friend, you read it and say to yourself, 'This company is really bad for me,'" she said. "People mix up their facts. They can't remember where they saw the info, but know they saw it somewhere."
The Department of Energy's Computer incident advisory capability estimates a single scam can cost more than $40 million in lost time and productivity.
"We've seen these things before with mail, but now we're seeing it more widespread," said William Orvis, the CIAC's senior security analyst. "With e-mail, it's so much easier to create and send these things on."
As a result, urban legends have thrived on the Internet -- at the expense of companies like Gap, Nike, Disney and Kentucky Fried Chicken, which have all been targets of Internet hoaxes.
In 1997, Gerber Baby Foods was flooded with a million letters and 80,000 phone calls from parents responding to e-mail about a phony class-action lawsuit. And another rumour about a Costa Rican flesh-eating bacteria that affected banana shipments cost that industry more than $30 million in 1999 and prompted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to set up a special hotline to ease consumer worries.
Coca-Cola, perhaps the most widely targeted company, created a Web page last year to debunk many widely spread rumours.
"We don't see a new rumour that often, it's usually a variation on an old one," said Kari Bjorhus, vice-president of Coke's Internet communication. She deals with rumours based on volume of calls -- which sometimes exceed a few hundred inquiries on a single topic -- and believability. "If the rumour is absurd, then we wouldn't address it publicly."
While many companies choose to ignore these myths, created by angry customers or rabble-rousers, Chesner warns that ignoring them is the "worst thing to do."
-- Cox Newspapers