One More E-Mail Tale Finds Believers


Computer users are outraged by reports that the Postal Service, its bottom line suffering because e-mail is siphoning off some of its most lucrative business, is quietly promoting legislation that would slap a 5-cent surcharge on every piece of e-mail they receive.

Complaints are flooding into congressional offices in response to a widely circulated e-mail message from a law firm in Washington’s Virginia suburbs declaring that Bill 602P would cost the average e-mail user $180 a year.

“If the federal government is permitted to tamper with our liberties by adding a surcharge to e-mail,” the message warns, “who knows where it will end?”


There’s only one problem: The news is a hoax, a scam, a lie hurtling through cyberspace.

Bill 602P does not exist. Neither does the crusading lawyer or his Virginia law firm or the Republican congressman, Tony Schnell, who is said to be pushing for an even higher e-mail surcharge. It is the creation of some unknown prankster with a fertile imagination and an understanding of cyberspace.

The phony warning is the product of something new--the Internet--combining with something old--the human capacity to believe the worst--to give birth to a rumor that is spreading faster than had ever been possible and that has acquired more credibility than a mere piece of gossip overheard at a cocktail party or during a casual phone call with a friend.

With the advent of the Internet, there is “an easy way of broadcasting these kinds of hoaxes and distortions in a matter of seconds,” said Prof. Frank Friedman, chairman of the information and computer sciences department at Temple University in Philadelphia.

“People are no more or less gullible than they have always been. But now all these gullible people can send a message to other people. We have to be circumspect with every piece of information we get over this beast.” The phony warning about e-mail charges says: “Send this e-mail to everyone on your list and tell all your friends and relatives to write to their congressman and say ‘no’ to bill 602P. It will only take a few minutes of your time and could very well be instrumental in killing a bill we don’t want.”

The appeal was written by “Kate Turner,” an assistant to a lawyer named “Richard Stepp,” a partner in the firm of Berger, Stepp & Gorman.

Despite the Postal Service’s best efforts to stamp it out, the rumor keeps springing back to life. “There’s no such bill and the Postal Service would not support such a notion,” Roy Betts, the Postal Service’s director of media relations, said Tuesday. The Postal Service briefly posted a notice on its own Web site stating that the story was a hoax and, Betts said, “we may decide to re-post it, so that we can snuff it out completely.”

That might not be easy. The rumor is spreading faster than the facts can shoot it down. Betts reported that the Postal Service has received complaints everywhere from Massachusetts to California.

In Congress, where all bills have numbers preceded by an “S” for the Senate and “HR” for the House of Representatives, bill No. 602P was quickly recognized by insiders as a phony.

Nevertheless, Rep. Marshall “Mark” Sanford (R-S.C.) has received at least 40 complaints, calls and messages about it. He views the phenomenon as a demonstration that people should not take Internet information at face value.