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Dirty Needles, Pay Phones and You

Netlore Archive: Have drug addicts everywhere suddenly decided en masse to dispose of their dirty needles in pay phone coin return slots?

November 4, 1998

THE LATEST email scare story is already spawning new variations as recipients spice it up with their own personal touches before forwarding it on to others.

Here are three versions in current circulation:

Example #1:

This was sent to me by a very good friend who works for CDC

Subject: This is serious!


ALERT! ALERT! FYI.. Don't use that telephone

There is something new happening that everyone should be aware of.

Drug users are now taking their used needles and putting them into the coin return slots in public telephones. People are putting their fingers in to recover coins or just to check if anyone left change. They are getting stuck by these needles and infected with hepatitis, HIV, and other diseases. This message is posted to make everyone aware of this danger. Be aware! The change isn't worth it!

P.S. - This information came straight from phone company workers, through the EMT instructor. This did NOT come from a hearsay urban legend source.

Example #2:

Haye All,

A weird story crossed my desk and thought I'd pass it along.

A friend-of-a-friend is currently going through EMT class and they've been warned (told) to be very careful reaching into any slot for return change. I guess the latest "thing" is placing used hypodermic needles into change-return slots, causing people to get pricked when they reach in for their change. These needles are showing up primarily at public pay phones, but obviously it could spread easily and quickly (e.g. stamp machines, vending machines, etc).

Please be careful. Thanks for your attention.

Example #3:


According to a Singaporean Tan Kim Leng, recently many people were reported sick (diseases like Hepatitis B, Aids, etc.) after being poked by a needle, what happened is this. Some cruel, sickening people would place an infected needle or pin inside the little compartment of the public telephone where you get the return change, (the opening with a flipping metal door where you put your fingers in to get back your remaining coins after you used the public phone) and this is how you get in touch with the needle and you get infected. Many cases had been reported, I mean many severe cases. Quite a number of the employee of Singapore Telecom (those who went round to collect the coins in the public phones were infected too). As far as we know, it has not been announced publicly, but very soon they would. Just be more careful if you really need to use the public phones, you may use, but insert the exact amount, otherwise, just forego those changes, I'm sure your life worth much more than these. Remember to spread this piece of information to as many people as possible, especially to your children and the elderly at home or those who do not have a cellular phone.

By the way, Tan Kim Leng is heading the Jurong Branch Police Station in Singapore, if you watch the Singapore news tonight, you probably would have seen him on TV.

This is a true incident that happened in Jarkata & Singapore discovered by a doctor. Sooner or later it will spread over the region including Hong Kong & Taiwan as well. So, please be alert with public phones and beware of aids !!

Analysis: It's scary, sounds authoritative, and is replicating in every part the world at this very moment. Is it an urban legend? Yes.

Contrary to the assertion that, quote, "This did NOT come from a hearsay urban legend source" (as claimed in one U.S. variant), the email itself is precisely a hearsay urban legend source, unsigned and lacking any verifiable sources. The text claims that the information came from "phone company workers," but doesn't say which phone company, or where, or who those workers were.

Moreover, the fact that more than one version is circulating demonstrates that anonymous senders are altering the text at will. As is the case with most such email alerts, the information they contain is inherently unreliable.

Ah, but is it true?

No. As of this writing, no actual cases have been documented. (Note: see update on apparent copycat incidents in Virginia.)

Which is not to say that an incident of the kind described may not have happened somewhere, sometime. Odds are it has occurred at least once, though I've been unable to locate a single news report anywhere to substantiate that.

What renders the rumor incredible as a whole is the implication that the placing of used needles in coin return slots is a common occurrence and that everyone, everywhere is endangered by it.

Are we to believe that a worldwide junkie convention took place wherein it was decided that public phones are the new needle disposal receptacle of choice? Was a resolution passed that instead of throwing away entire syringes (which won't fit into a coin return slot), all needles must henceforth be purposely detached and secreted somewhere where they can harm others?

Not likely.

Furthermore, what's the motive? Are we to think that drug addicts are a malicious and hateful lot by nature? There's no good reason to suppose it. Sure, they're notoriously irresponsible; sure, they're often found to be involved in criminal activities beyond using illegal drugs; but it doesn't follow that we should expect them to commit random acts of evil.

Though absurd in its specifics, the rumor echoes on a deeper level the conviction most of us have that the world is not as safe and sane a place as it used to be. It supplies anecdotal "evidence" to support a growing trend toward fear and distrust of strangers, particularly those who live on the seemier margins of society. Although the rumor was unfounded when it first erupted, reports of copycat incidents (Feb. 1999) now lend it an unfortunate after-the-fact credibility and nourish that underlying sense of insecurity. The dividing line between paranoia and prudent caution becomes harder and harder to discern.

Related articles:

Welcome to the World of AIDS
Needle-stick rumors as circulating in May 1998

More AIDS/HIV Sneak Attacks
New variants reported in October 1998

HIV Needle-Stick Rumors Still Thriving Online
March 1999 update with reports of copycat pranks

HIV Needles on Gas Pumps
New variant as of June 2000

CDC Report: Needle-Stick Hoaxes
Centers for Disease Control

Current Hoaxes / Netlore
The Urban Legends Top 25

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