One Real Incident Launches Millions of Viral Emails
by David Emery
Updated January 06, 2017
A scary story making the Internet rounds since 1999 claims that criminals in the U.S. and elsewhere are using perfume samples spiked with ether or some kind of “knockout drug” to render victims unconscious before assaulting them and/or stealing their valuables.
Versions of this urban legend continue to circulate via email and social media. A Twitter message from 2015 is as follows:
Pls if anyone stops U and ask if you’re interested in some perfume and gives u a paper to smell, pls don’t! It’s a new scam, the paper is laced with drugs. You’ll pass out so they can kidnap, rob or do worse things to you. Pls forward to all friends and family..Save a life please. This was received from a Senior police officer this morning. Take note and alert everyone you want to protect. This is not a joke please. Pass on to family and friends. This is from the UK.
The Knockout Perfume Scam
The closest any of these reports has come to being confirmed was the case of Bertha Johnson of Mobile, Alabama, who told police in November 1999 that she was robbed of $800 after sniffing a cologne sample offered by a stranger and subsequently passing out in her car.
Toxicological tests revealed no foreign substances in Johnson’s blood, however.
Although the details have morphed over time, more recent versions of the story echo early news reports about the alleged Alabama incident. Instead of cologne, the tainted sample is now said to be perfume. Instead of an unknown soporific substance, the knockout drug is now said to be ether. Interestingly, the main moral message of the story, which was originally “Beware of parking lot scammers,” has evolved into “If I hadn’t read this warning, I could have been a victim too. And so could you!”
It’s typical for rumors, hoaxes, and urban legends to change as they’re passed from person to person (or inbox to inbox).
As anyone who has ever played the children’s game of “Telephone” can attest, perception and memory are fallible, and people tend to misremember and/or misreport what they’ve heard. Moreover, it’s in the nature of storytelling (and storytellers) to creatively enhance a yarn to make it more impactful.
These processes can be seen at work in the tale of “The Knock-Out Perfume.”
Two Sniffs and You’re Out!
On Nov. 8, 1999, the Mobile, Alabama police department issued this press release:
On Monday, November 8, 1999, at approximately 2:30 p.m. Officers from the Third Precinct responded to the World of Wicker, at 3055 Dauphin Street. When the Officers arrived the victim, 54-year-old Bertha Johnson of the 2400 block of St. Stephens Road, advised she was rendered unconscious after smelling an unknown substance. Johnson was approached by an unknown black female, who was described as follows: slim build, 120-130 pounds, 5 feet 7 inches tall and was last seen wearing a Leopard print wrap on her head and large gold loop earrings. The victim told Investigators the incident occurred at the Amsouth Bank at 2326 Saint Stephens Road. After the victim regained consciousness she discovered her property missing from her purse and her vehicle. The MOBILE POLICE DEPARTMENT is advising the public to be on alert for this type of activity.
Local media jumped on the story. A Nov. 10 article in the Mobile Register quoted Johnson as saying that her assailant offered her a $45 bottle of cologne for the bargain price of $8 and talked her into to sniffing a sample.
She did, once, and detected nothing odd about the aroma. But when she sniffed it a second time, she said, she lost consciousness. The next thing Johnson knew, she was sitting in another parking lot miles away from where she’d started, dazed, confused, and missing $800 in cash.
“I feel like I got flimflammed out of something that I should have known better than to even look out the window at her,” Johnson told the Register.
Within days of the incident, the story of Bertha Johnson’s parking lot misadventure was all over the internet.
Anonymous Email Warning of Parking Lot Perfume Scam
Bertha Johnson’s firsthand report of her alleged run-in with a cologne scammer inspired an anonymously-written email cautioning all women to beware of parking lot vendors offering samples of cut-rate cologne. While it nailed some of the reported facts correctly, it omitted others completely — the name of the victim, for example, as well as the name of the city in which the incident supposedly happened.
These omissions may have dampened the email’s credibility somewhat. In general, narratives are more believable the more specific they are. But minus some of the particulars the story took on an air of universality as if to say: this could happen to anyone, anywhere, even you, in your hometown.
Subject: Fwd: Cologne sniffing
Date: Mon, 15 Nov 1999 08:54:37 -0600
Watch out – this is for real!!!!!!!
I just heard on the radio about a lady that was asked to sniff a bottle of perfume that another woman was selling for $8.00. (In a mall parking lot) She told the story that it was her last bottle of perfume that regularly sells for $49.00 but she was getting rid of it for only $8.00, sound legitimate?
That’s what the victim thought, but when she awoke she found out that her car had been moved to another parking area and she was missing all her money that was in her wallet (total of $800.00). Pretty steep for a sniff of perfume!
Anyway, the perfume wasn’t perfume at all, it was some kind of ether or strong substance to cause anyone who breathes the fumes to black out.
So beware….. Christmas time is coming and we will be going to malls shopping and we will have cash on us.
Ladies, please don’t be so trusting of others and beware of your surroundings- ALWAYS! Obey your instincts!
*Please pass this on to your friends, sisters, mothers and all the women in your life you care about……. we can never be too careful!!!!*
“I Did Two Stupid Things”
More variants appeared almost instantly, usually localizing the story in places where no such crimes had been reported. One version sent later that same month bore the false preamble, “This happened in St. Louis.”
In early December a lengthier version emerged. A woman was approached in a Walmart parking lot by two young men hawking “designer perfume, it said,” for only $8 a bottle (as in the original version). In this variant the potential victim is said to have declined to sniff the product, and escaped unharmed. Of course, the email strongly urged that it be passed on to to friends, loved ones, and co-workers.
Subject: Parking lot weirdos
This was forwarded to me – you may be interested:
This is quite strange to hear this story because last month I was approached in the Wal-Mart (on Beckly) parking lot by two young men who were selling designer perfume. They stated that it was the excess of a cosmetic show and it was $8.00. I noticed one young mans distinct accent. I asked him if he was from Kentucky. He replied yes. He asked me if I was sure I didn’t want to smell the perfume and I once again said no then got into my car. I did two stupid things. First I spoke/conversed with a stranger at 9:00 at night in a parking lot. Second I allowed a stranger into my space without realizing he was moving closer to me. I was on my guard.
The Rumor Spreads to Walmart and Target
The Walmart version was still going strong when yet another variant appeared describing yet another new incident, this one having allegedly occurred in the parking lot of a Target store in Plano, Texas. In this rendering, disaster is once again averted when the would-be victim rebuffs the salesman’s advances before he even tells her what he’s selling. The warning is all the more frightening, however, because it gives the impression that similar crimes are being perpetrated all over the United States.
In January 2000 someone completely rewrote the text emphasizing the “close call” scenario and crediting earlier versions of the email with preventing more such crimes from taking place:
Come April 2000, another report of an incident in a Walmart parking lot is appended to the foregoing version. Note that the two males described in this variant are neither hawking perfume nor asking anyone to sniff a sample. They merely inquire as to the kind of perfume the narrator is wearing:
I just wanted to pass along that I was approached yesterday afternoon at around 3:30 p.m. in the Walmart parking lot at Forest Drive by 2 males asking what kind of perfume I was wearing. I didn’t stop to answer them and kept walking toward the store. At the same time I remembered this email. The men continued to stand between parked cars — I guess to wait on someone else to hit on. I stopped a lady going toward them, pointed at them, and told her what they might ask and NOT to let them get near her. When that happened, the men and a lady (I don’t know where she came from!) started walking the other way toward their car parked in far corner of the parking lot. I thank Jane Shirey for passing this along — it might have saved me from a robbery. I’m passing this along to you’all so you can warn the women in your life to watch out for this… Cathy
“Don’t Stop for a Stranger…”
This wordy variation, which also appeared in late April 2000, describes yet another close call, though this time the story is completely secondhand. It’s set in Kansas City:
Two weekends ago, Mom, Melody and I were shopping at The Home Place at about 95th & Metcalf and while I was driving around the parking lot looking for the closest parking spot, we saw a man individually approach two single women and speak to them. They both just kept walking and wouldn’t have anything to do with him.
When we got into the store we saw one of the women that he spoke with and so curiosity getting the best of us we went up to her and explained that we’d seen the man approach her in the parking lot and we were wondering what he wanted. She then told us she was so scared that she had to sit down so we found the section with lawn furniture and we all sat down. She explained that just a few days prior she had received and e-mail about a man approaching you in a store parking lot asking if you’d like to smell a perfume, explaining that he’s got all of the latest fragrances at drastically reduced prices and that he’s sure you’ll like this one (as he hands you the bottle) you take it and smell it and pass out because it’s ether, not perfume. She said that was this man’s exact line and that when she saw him pull a bottle out from his jacket, she said don’t open that bottle or I’ll scream and call the police on my cell phone. Well, we walked her to her car when we were all done shopping so she didn’t have to go back out there by herself and we talked about it for a few minutes.
Three Versions in One
The knockout perfume legend took the form of an omnibus version in 2000, including a new scenario that supposedly took place at a gas station in Des Moines, Iowa, followed by two of the previous versions.
I received this email from a friend!
I was pumping gas at the Texaco station at Merle Hay and Douglas approximately a week and a half ago and a young girl walked up to me and asked if I’d like to sample some perfume scents. She said that they had all the latest fragrances. I looked over at her car which was a turquoise sub-compact and her boyfriend (?) was rooting through the trunk. I declined, saying that I had to get back to work. She said again that they had all the latest scents and it wouldn’t take long. I again declined and went inside to pay for my gas. She said, “Thanks anyway”, and went back to her car. When I pulled out, the two were just sitting there in the car. She smiled and waved. I thought it was an odd thing at the time, but the note below really brings it home that it could have been part of this indeed frightening scenario. I don’t know WHAT they had in mind, but I can verify that this happened to me here in Des Moines. Please be careful, ladies.
The Story’s the Thing
In true folkloric fashion, not one of the anecdotes you’ve just read is supported by anything more than hearsay, and anonymous hearsay at that. It doesn’t necessarily follow that every report is false, but skepticism is in order.
The moral message people are conveying by amplifying and spreading this legend is a familiar one, amount really to little more plain old common sense: “Be careful out there.” That’s a good message and a wise policy, but we have to question whether repeating frightful stories with little or no basis in fact is the best way to inspire prudent behavior.
Urban legends often take the form of cautionary tales, but it would be a mistake to assume that they always actually function as such. Urban legends thrive, mainly, because they’re emotionally gripping stories. To the extent that they serve any social purpose at all, it’s probably more catharsis than anything — providing a belly laugh when we’re blue or a bone-chilling scare to release pent-up tension. Plus, don’t forget, there’s an all-too-human pleasure to be had by provoking these reactions in others.
In days gone by, people sat around for hours in the glow of a campfire scaring the pants off one another with horror stories for no other reason than that they enjoyed it. Human nature hasn’t changed. We still enjoy scaring each other, only now we do it by the glow of a computer screen instead of a crackling fire.
Sources and further reading:
Perfume Email Smells a Little Fishy
Rotorua Daily Post, 21 April 2007
‘Perfume Scam’ Reeks of Myth
New Zealand Herald, 12 December 2000