Halifax Herald
Thursday, March 27, 1997

Police not laughing over Internet hoax

by Eva Hoare

An Internet hoax meant to give cyberspace junkies a chuckle turned out to be a headache for Halifax regional police Wednesday.

A Toronto marketing firm was trying out an April Fool's joke a bit early and the trick sure demonstrated the power of the medium, said Sgt. Bill Cowper, a.k.a. Sgt. Internet.

The hoax was an e-mail from Harold Oser - H. Oser - warning businesses with Web sites to immediately get a licence under Canada's new "Information Highway Act".

The e-mail went on to urge businesses to provide detailed information online to conform with alleged new government regulations regarding Web sites.

The "Canadian Internet Licensing Board" would process such information, the e-mail said. The deadline for licence applications was June 30.

"It's an April Fool's Day joke", said Liz Armstrong, of the Toronto marketing firm Hip Hype Inc'd., which sent the e-mail.

The message was directed to a limited number of people who used two particular newsgroups, she said.

And while the response to date has been "very favorable", Ms. Armstrong was quite surprised to get a call from Halifax regional police.

"If nothing else, this is really a testament to the effectiveness of the medium", she said.

Sgt. Cowper said he got involved after receiving a call from a local businessman who had contacted several agencies to see if the licensing requirements were for real.

Ms. Armstrong said if recipients read on, the satiric e-mail "gets progressively sillier".

At no time did it ask for money or fees.

By late Wednesday afternoon, the Web site to which e-mail recepients were directed was being amended, she said.

"Each page is going to say at the bottom, 'It's a joke, eh?!' "

"It's a little bit more than a joke", said Sgt. Cowper, who worked most of the day trying to find the e-mailer.

When he determined it was Hip Hype, he phoned to let the company know someone had taken its prank seriously.

The "Internet licensing board" even has its own Web page and applicants were told they would be committing an offence if they didn't comply.

"There is no Information Highway Act", Sgt. Cowper said. "There is no provision to have your site licensed. This is not an official body.

"It's a hoax, pure and simple. It's a hoax that has become a nuisance."

Although the prank was innocent, it serves as a warning to surfers to be careful about the type of information they hand over on the Internet, Sgt. Cowper said.

"Privacy issues get raised right away. In this case, I'm quite certain that all it is is a hoax and not anything else."

Consumers wanting to find out real Internet scams should call the National Fraud Information Centre at 1-800-876-7060.

Copyright © 1997 by The Halifax Herald. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.