YOU'D think pranksters
would be at their wits' end. Real-life headlines -- President's DNA tested
in sex scandal, Baltimore Orioles play baseball in Cuba -- seem stranger
than fiction, defying anyone to come up with an eye-catching practical joke
on April Fool's Day.
By SREENATH SREENIVASAN
You'd be wrong. Thanks
to various Web sites and software programs, it is easier than ever to
fool and be fooled.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology has a 120-year tradition of students'
playing benign engineering pranks. A year ago today, students hacked the
front page of the M.I.T. home page and replaced it with one that announced
"Disney to Acquire M.I.T. for $6.9 Billion." So proud are students of
their handiwork that they have archived examples of their famous on-line
and off-line pranks, including the Disney one, at the M.I.T.
Hack Gallery (hacks.mit.edu/Hacks).
M.I.T.'s computer network manager, said his team was ready to defend itself
against any similar efforts this year. "We are always vigilant," he said,
"so my bigger concern is, how funny will it be?" Mr. Schiller said that
he discovered last year's Disney hack within three minutes, but left it
up for the day because "it was hilarious."
A good starting point
for exploring Internet-based pranks is April Fools on the Net
, run by David Barberi of 2meta Consulting, in West Chester, Pa (www.2meta.com/april-fools).
It serves as an archive of various fake E-mail messages and other pranks.
Among the classics in the Top 20 Fools section: the "Internet Cleaning"
hoax of 1997, which warned that the entire Internet needed to be shut
down on April 1 that year.
That one encouraged
people to turn off their computers and servers and disconnect their Internet
connections so that "Internet-crawling robots" could remove "electronic
flotsam and jetsam" to create a "better-working and faster" Internet.
"Avoid wearing nylon
(or other dielectric fiber) undergarments because of the possibility of
electrical discharge," the message warned helpfully. And of course it
urged Internet users to post the message prominently and to pass it to
These hoaxes "thrive
on the newbies," said Rob Rosenberger, a security expert who documents
hoaxes and debunks phony virus warnings on his site (kumite.com/myths).
"One of the first things any new user invariably gets is a hoax of some
kind that he or she then forwards to everyone they know," he said.
users who throw away chain letters received via the Postal Service seem
keen on forwarding the most outrageous fake E-mail about Internet "tolls,"
or "Walt Disney Jr." giving free Disney World passes to a lucky few thousand
people who add their names to an E-mail list.
"The technology makes
it so much easier to send messages that no one thinks before hitting the
Send button," Mr. Rosenberger said. "They think they can change the world
with a few clicks of the mouse."
There is a strong
distinction, of course, between the April Fool's tradition of jokestering
on the Web and the malicious hoaxes meant to inflict harm on individual
or networked computers.
For those wanting
to go beyond jokes and fashion for a more sophisticated and personal spoof,
there is April Fools.com, which promises: "We don't want
to fool you. We want to help you fool someone else." Most of the pranks
can be played free (aprilfools.infospace.com).
of shenanigans is The Free Site. Some of the tricks there,
like programs that simulate an accidental erasure of every file on a hard
drive, complete with realistic messages and sound effects, are on the
cruel side (www.thefreesite.com/aprilfools.htm).
Tricksters who are
looking for something tamer can try the April Fool's electronic greetings
at the Hallmark Cards site (www.hallmarkconnections.com).
If you do get an
E-mail today that seems too good, too bad or too amazing to be true, it
probably is. If you harbor suspicions, visit Hoax Kill
(www.hoaxkill.com), which tracks urban legends, bogus virus warnings and
other pranks and offers help "to actively combat them."
Be careful out there
today. You've been warned.
These sites are not part of The New York Times on the Web,
and The Times has no control over their content or availability.