Some People Never Learn

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My wife received a message from her sister the other day, copied to about 50 people. (Thank you very much for broadcasting our private email address, as if we don’t receive enough spam already!)

As usual, the message claimed to be important information that we should pass along to everyone possible. And, as usual, my wife immediately recognized the message as a hoax, like so many she receives from her family.

The details aren’t really significant, but I’ll share them here anyway to satisfy your rabid curiosity.

The message claims Fox TV broadcast a news report explaining that if you’re forced by a robber to withdraw cash from an ATM you can enter your PIN number in reverse and the police will immediately be sent to help you. The message says this is seldom used because most people don’t know about it.

Why is this implausible? Consider …

It would cost the banks millions of dollars (or Euros, or whatever amount of currency in use in your country would constitute a fortune) to implement this. If they did, and if it worked, and if it could really save lives, don’t you think they’d tell their card holders? We get notices from the bank every other time they want to trumpet their great service; the more they do, the more likely we are to put up with exorbitant service charges. Yet the message claims most people don’t know about this.

The message gives an example of a PIN number in reverse. If your PIN number is 1234, you simply enter 4321. Convenient. And what if your PIN number is 1221, or some other numerical palindrome? Sorry, you’re screwed.

Like many hoaxes, this one has a small grain of truth. The technology to implement this does exist. Automated Teller Machines are all tied in to central computers; it wouldn’t be impossible to write a sub-routine that checks to see whether a “panic PIN” or a “duress code” was used and then notify the nearest police station.

And, apparently, such a system was suggested as far back as the mid-1990s. But the banks never implemented it. Why wouldn’t they? Possibly because of the cost. Possibly because of the high likelihood of abuse by pranksters. And possibly because they know that if a raving drug-addict looking for money for another hit is holding a gun to their head, the average person is likely to be so near hysterics they’ll be lucky to enter their PIN normally, let alone think to reverse it.

Interestingly, duress codes are used in more advanced security systems. Usually, though, they’re not as simple as entering your PIN in reverse. They may involve a bit of math, like adding 1 to your PIN without carry. Thus, if your PIN is 1119, the duress code becomes 1110, not 1120. Like that’s easy to remember when you’re under duress!

Getting back to the story, here’s why this just made my wife and I shake our heads …

As I mentioned, this is not the first hoax message my in-laws have so graciously shared with us. They seem to fall for just about every one of these things. And every time they forward the message to us, we reply with a link to http://www.hoax-slayer.com or http://urbanlegends.about.com showing them why it’s a hoax.

It’s not difficult to determine whether these warnings and “secret” tips are legitimate. It usually takes us less than a minute to sniff out the truth on Google or Yahoo. This time we didn’t bother. We figure if our relatives can’t be bothered spending 60 seconds to find out the truth for themselves, they probably don’t want to know. Plus, they probably think we’re a couple of know-it-alls. Then again, if we keep rebutting their messages, maybe they’ll stop sending them!


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