The Checkout

Believe Your E-mail ... Or Not

How's this for a scary e-mail? My podmate received it recently from her wonderful mother-in-law, who likes to warn her family about all sorts of catastrophes "just in case." (Consider the warning she received just before a beach trip: Don't approach baby seals because they can grab you by the arm and crush you to death. And they weren't even going to a beach with seals!)

Here's the latest "just in case" alert sent by the well-meaning mother-in-law:

"Never, ever answer a cell phone while it is being CHARGED!!

A few days ago, a person was recharging his cell phone at home. Just at that time a call came and he answered it with the instrument still connected to the outlet. After a few seconds electricity flowed into the cell phone unrestrained and the young man was thrown to the ground with a heavy thud. His parents rushed to the room only to find him unconscious, with a weak heartbeat and burnt fingers.

He was rushed to the nearby hospital, but was pronounced dead on arrival. Cell phones are a very useful modern invention. However, we must be aware that it can also be an instrument of death.

Never use the cell phone while it is hooked to the electrical outlet!

FORWARD THIS TO THE PEOPLE THAT MATTER IN YOUR LIFE, I JUST DID !"

Of course, as is usually the case in these kinds of e-mails, the notice said this incident was true. As it said: "Checked out on www.snopes.com and it did happen."

As you all probably know, Snopes is a popular Web site to check the validity of many tales or urban legends making the Internet rounds. Well Snopes does say this claim is true, based on an incident in India in 2004. But Snopes adds that there have been no other accounts of similar accidents. "It is reasonable to conclude that the problem was specific" to that particular phone. Snopes also noted that manufacturing standards vary worldwide, and U.S. safety standards are such that "just because a cell phone manufactured half a world away may have killed its owner doesn't mean your unit harbors any potential to do the same to you."

The cell phone industry and Consumer Product Safety Commission both say they have never heard of people being electrocuted in the manner outlined in the e-mail. However, some cell phone batteries have been recalled for being fire hazards. But the industry and CPSC say that problem is primarily with counterfeit batteries and advise consumers to make sure they buy their products from well-known stores, not street vendors. (The CPSC has a list of tips on the safe use of cell phones, batteries and charges.)

Given all the caveats Snopes listed about the veracity of the cell-phone electrocution incident, I tried to contact Snopes to ask why it listed something as true when, all things considered, it probably was not. This was the second time I found that to be the case (see the item I wrote on a Visa/MasterCard scam). There was no phone number, only an e-mail address for queries. So I sent an e-mail, asking Snopes if it had considered saying something was "possible." After all, declaring something as "true" only escalates the legend's stature.

The only reply I got was a short e-mail:

"Thank you for writing to us! Although we receive hundreds of e-mails every day, we really and truly read them all, and your comments, suggestions, and questions are most welcome. Unfortunately, we cannot personally answer every piece of incoming e-mail." Instead, I should check out the Web site.

I did, and this is the best answer I could find:

"We rate an urban legend as "true" when there is sufficient evidence to indicate that the legend began with a real-life event. ... Many urban legends describe events so general and plausible that they might very well have happened to somebody, somewhere, sometime. But since seldom can a legend's origins be traced to a specific, identifiable occurrence, we rarely categorize them as "true. ... Many of the texts we discuss contain a mixture of truth, falsity, and exaggeration which cannot be accurately described by a single "True" or "False" rating. Therefore, our rating may be based upon what we have chosen as the single most important aspect of the text under discussion."

All well and good. Based on that criteria, maybe Snopes should review the truth of some of its legends, starting with the cell phone electrocution incident.

By  |  March 14, 2006; 7:00 AM ET Consumer Tips
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Comments

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How could you actually read the Snopes article, then reach the conclusion that you do?

In their last edit to the page (September 2004), Snopes classified veracity of the email message as "multiple." That's because a man in India actually was electrocuted when he answered his charging phone. Snopes also said explicitly that the claim that charging phones in general could electrocute people was false.

What more do you want? Should Snopes pretend that the Indian man never died, in order to satisfy your desire for an uncomplicated story?

Posted by: Derek Sugimura | March 14, 2006 10:23 AM

There are many factors that could have contributed to the Indian man's death. Perhaps it was just a faulty outlet, in which case the same tragedy could have occurred had he been making toast. That being said, cell phone companies advise against using your cell phone for any reason while it is charging. Apparently this has a negative effect on the long-term function of the cell phone.

Posted by: Whatever | March 14, 2006 10:58 AM

I got almost the exact same email yesterday from a coworker (with the caveat that it was reported on a local news station), and my first response was to check snopes. I think their explaination is accurate, as apparently the event did occur once.

I think the people who know snopes will double check the claim (as I did- we know that you can't trust the "so-and-so says its true!" lines), and those who don't know snopes would use any random webcite cited as evidence. Washingtonpost.com says its true! thisemailisamyth.com says its true!

I've debated about sending a reply with the snopes link, but I'm not sure if thats too snotty or not.

Posted by: Parasaur | March 14, 2006 11:10 AM

I always turn the ringer off my cell phone before I charge it. If anyone called me while it was charging, I wouldn't even know about it.

Posted by: Cell Phone Owner | March 14, 2006 11:13 AM

this is all you have to write about? Blogging is cool and all, but between "ow, yogurt!" and "hey, i get crap in my in-box", this is really a far cry from real reporting. Don't you guys have a corrupt gov't official to track down or something??

Posted by: come on, this is the Washington Post. | March 14, 2006 11:15 AM

OMG! Cell phones - the INSTRUMENT OF DEATH!

Posted by: DOOM! | March 14, 2006 11:24 AM

I'd agree with Derek. Seriously, Ms. Mayer...what is wrong with you? Did you read the Snopes account carefully? It says, more or less: True - a man was electrocuted in this way. FALSE - this is going to happen to you.

Posted by: Dude | March 14, 2006 12:05 PM

I think the issue we're all missing here is that people believe anything they read on the internet. I get these emails from my in-laws every day or so and they honest to God believe they are true. We have taken to responding with a link to snopes for a lot of them. If you are one of these people who sends this crap around - please, please, stop . If it were true, or important, it would be on reported by legitimate new agencies.

Posted by: Daughter in-law | March 14, 2006 1:23 PM

if you post a comment while your computer is plugged in, you may be electrocuted

Posted by: poppo | March 14, 2006 1:30 PM

It seems you are using Snopes.com as an (infallible) medium to test the veracity of incredible stories. And accusing it of not living up to your expectations. However that is not the goal of the site...
That you have been using it in this way, and tha you now have been disappointed twice does not say anything about Snopes.com it says something about you.

Posted by: Ronald | March 14, 2006 1:58 PM

DO NOT ANSWER THE PHONE WHILE REACHING FOR YOGURT ON THE TOP SHELF OTHERWISE A BABY SEAL WILL CRUSH YOU TO DEATH WITH A MASTERCARD!!!1one

Posted by: Taniwha | March 14, 2006 3:25 PM

Holy Crap! That baby seal thing happened to my cousin! You can't be too careful.

Posted by: Re: Baby Seal | March 14, 2006 4:16 PM

Just a style point: for future reference, snopes.com and "snopes" is always lower-case letters, and not with a capital "S".

And if you identify yourself as being with the Washington Post (or leave a post for Barbara and David in the "media spotting" section of their message board), I bet you'll get a personal answer asap.

Posted by: ML | March 14, 2006 6:29 PM

Goes to show that it is always helpful to know how a device actually works to judge whether some failure mode is possible or not. The fact that there is a transformer between the the cell phone and the 110V mains should hint that the worst you can get is a 9V shock - except if the transformer channels the full voltage to your phone (a short-circuit that is most unlikely). But then 1) the transformer's fuse will blow 2) the house's fuse will blow 3) the house's 'missing current detector' will blow 4) your phone is made of plastics, thus isolated 5) if all of the above fails, the smell and sight of burning plastic will probably give you a heads-up.

Furthermore, such mails should not get past spamfilters.

Posted by: El Tonno | March 14, 2006 6:39 PM

Oh, geez, I have an uncle who forwards this kind of crap to the family listserv. I mean, cmon, people. Develop some critical thinking skills!

Posted by: h3 | March 14, 2006 8:14 PM

Hi Caroline, I love your blog. It is always interesting, entertaining and educational. Oh, and I get those "warning" emails from a few friends all the time, too. And my sending the snopes.com link to them each time doesn't seem to stop them. Ever. I guess some people were born to warn. Keep up the great work!

Posted by: a Minnesota fan | March 15, 2006 10:33 AM

How did such an inept person get to be a consumer reporter for a major paper like The Washington Post?

Most of your consumers stories are riddled with errors and nonsensical comments.

Posted by: Alan Smythie | March 15, 2006 11:10 AM

FYI I recently sent a suggestion to snopes.com and got that auto-reply but then a few days later got a personal reply that coincidentally they were just working on the story I sent. So hang in there.

Posted by: Matt | March 15, 2006 11:14 AM

Alan: I've been wondering the same thing. It's a potentially interesting blog, but so many of her posts are as you describe. Unforgiveable when there's SO MUCH out there in the world of consumerism asking for the smackdown.

Posted by: I agree | March 16, 2006 1:18 PM

"If it were true, or important, it would be reported by legitimate news agencies"
This is a Great statement. How about "Bush loses and Dewey Wins" There is no such thing as a legitimate news ageny. As another example (a very crule one) "The miners are all alive" OOPS "They are all Dead" Hey they just want to be the first to tell the story right or wrong, but first. Take everything with a ton of salt even if it is not good for your blood pressure.

Posted by: Where are they? | March 23, 2006 10:59 AM

My husband is an electricial contractor. He said it is possible to be electrocuted by a phone being charged, but not likely. Who wants to take the chance though? I'm not going to answer my cell phone without unplugging it just to be on the safe side.

Posted by: Linda | March 27, 2006 8:38 PM

The user guide for my Nokia 3560 states: "After the first gharge, you can make and receive calls during the charging cycle, but the calls interrupt the charge. When a call ends, the charge will resume."

That said, a person using (in violation of the guide's safety rules) a damaged transformer could have a problem. If the transformer's internal sections were shorted out, the excess energy could cause the battery to explode. But the guide also warns against using damaged components.

So read and heed!

Posted by: Stan Boswell | March 28, 2006 6:53 PM

The story is true therefor snopes.com report it as true. I don't see where they went wrong there.

Posted by: Varon | August 4, 2006 8:17 PM

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