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Professional Hoaxers

Almost everyone who pulls a hoax on the media does it only once. But for a few people, hoaxing is a lifetime avocation, and their motives have nothing to do with such mundane concerns as making money or staying out of prison.

They put on elaborate ruses involving numerous people - and sometimes animals - acting out parts for the benefit of unsuspecting reporters. They rent hotel suites, issue press releases, print business cards and build Web sites. They watch journalists print or broadcast their fabrications, then announce that they made it all up.

That revelation can be devastating for journalists. When this reporter was almost hoaxed by Alan Abel's tale about Females for Felons - an organization of women who have sex with male convicts to help them stay straight - I felt as if I'd dodged a bullet that would have seriously sullied my career, if not ended it. Journalists who've been victimized almost always spit out one question through their rage: "Why?" The two hoaxers profiled here are both out to deliver messages. The way they see it, our major institutions and leaders engage in lies and elaborate hoaxes all the time: advertisements, political and government propaganda, and sensationalized stories are just a few examples. They see journalists as part of this machine of entertainment and deception, and they want to expose it.

Joey Skaggs is an artist and social satirist for whom media hoaxes are just one tool. He stages performance events, like an April Fools Day parade that is essentially a 3-D commentary on the year's news and those who made it. His hoaxes are designed to attack "propaganda" and "disinformation," he says. "The media are my canvas, my medium to make social-political commentary."

Alan Abel, a comedian and musician, says his main motive is to get laughs. He once explained that he likes to "jump in and create some havoc, give some levity to the news. And the media are prime targets - they are so ruthless, they deserve to be pricked once in a while. Their pomposity and insensitivity are overwhelming. The media lies and lies and lies. "

Professional hoaxers know how journalists work and what they want, and they take advantage of almost very vulnerability of the newsgathering process - particularly journalists' hunger for off-beat, "you won't believe this" stories, and the routine shallowness or even absence of fact-checking. They say their pranks always include clues or particularly outrageous elements that should alert reporters that something's fishy.

Key Factors

Great Stories: A cathouse for dogs. A school for beggars. A sqaud of thugs that moves in with you to enforce your diet. In newsrooms, these stories score high "holy shit" quotients. In retrospect, the joke seems obvious. But the "it sounds too good to be true" voice in a reporter's head is offset by another voice that says, "In this world, nothing is too strange to be true."

Credibility: They fabricate the tools and images that reporters routinely take as evidence that a person is on the up-and-up: business cards, brochures, Web sites, job applications, phone numbers registered in the name of the alleged business. (For years, Alan Abel's Omar's School for Beggars was listed in the Manhattan telephone directory.) They convene news conferences. They surround themselves with other people who back up the claim and provide other sources to interview.

Confirmation Obstacles: It seems like there are plenty of people to confirm the story, but most of them - such as clients for the alleged business - are actually referred to the reporter by the hoaxer himself. Independent confirmation is often impossible.

So the confirmation process is self-fulfilling: Omar conducts lessons in how to beg, then takes his students outside to practice, so the reporter knows he's actually seeing the beggars' school in action - except that the beggars are all actors who are in on the joke. The Fat Sqaud poses for pictures and even goes on television, while clients talk about how the thugs kept them away from their refrigerators - but they're all in on the joke, too.

Deadline Pressure: Some hoaxes are timed to make independent confirmation of the story difficult. When Abel got one of his friends to pretend that she won $35 million in the New York lottery, he arranged the news conference for a Sunday afternoon, when the state lottery offices were closed, so that reporters couldn't confirm her claim.

The "We Believe What We Read in the Papers" Syndrome: Once one news outlet bites, everyone else pretty much follows along.

Media Bandwagon: When numerous news organizations cover a news conference or run a story, it takes a bold reporter or editor to suggest that her news organization be the only one not to run with it, because "we can't confirm everything yet" or "it just feels funny."

The Hoaxer's Investment: They put their faces on TV and in the paper, they spend money on supplies and venues (such as hotel suites), they invest time - all of which make it seem more unlikely that it's all for fun.

No Doubting Thomas: For the most part, the hoaxers are making claims about what they do, and no one is really in a position to refute the claim.

Red Flags

The "Huh?" Factor: Journalists who've been hoaxed or nearly hoaxed, by these pros advise others to listen to the voice in your head that says the story's too good to be true, even though you want it to be. Be especially wary if you find yourself wanting the story to be true so much that you make excuses to suppress some of those doubts. And if you summarize your story out loud to a colleague, and he or she laughs, be careful.

Unconfirmable Details: None of these stories can be independently verified. The only people who back up the story are people referred by the main source. Alleged facts can't be confirmed, such as someone's claim to be a doctor (check state licensing records), to have "secret" support from famous people or companies, and even the main source's name. Certain scientifically based claims - such as that roach hormones can cure acne - should at least enable a reporter to find someone to discuss the fundamental soundness of the claim.

The Telling Detail: These hoaxers like to see how much they can get away with, and like to throw clues or outrageous elements into an otherwise believable scenario. The creator of the Fat Squad was named Joe Bones. Skaggs' cure-all roach hormone venture was named Metamorphosis, after the Franz Kafka movie in which the protagonist becomes a giant cockroach.

In Abel's lottery hoax, the fake winner said Donald Trump gave her the winning numbers in a dream. Abel's press release about the KKK orchestra said the group wanted to create "a kinder, gentler quality of life," one of the factors that led one reporter to tell her editor, "This must be some kind of joke."

Resources

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