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Perfume Scam ('The Knockout Perfume')

Evolution of an Urban Legend

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ONE OF THE more alarming urban legends making the email rounds since 1999 alleges that bands of thieves in the U.S. and elsewhere are using ether-spiked perfume samples to render victims unconscious before making off with their valuables. The only case that has come even close to being confirmed is that of Bertha Johnson of Mobile, Alabama, who told police in 1999 she was robbed of $800 after sniffing a cologne sample offered by a stranger and passing out in her car. Toxicological tests revealed no foreign substance in Johnson's blood.

Though the details have morphed over time, versions of the story showing up in inboxes today appear to be directly descended from early news reports about the alleged incident in Alabama. Instead of cologne, the soporific sample is now most often said to be perfume. Instead of an unknown, undetectable substance, the knockout drug is said to be ether. Interestingly, the moral of the story, which began simply as "Beware of parking lot scammers," has evolved into "If not for these email warnings, I could have been a victim too — and so could you!"

It is typical for the content of rumors, hoaxes, and urban legends to change as they pass from person to person (or inbox to inbox). Variants emerge for a couple of reasons: for one, as anyone who has ever played the children's game called "Telephone" can attest, perception and memory are fallible, and people tend to misremember and/or misreport things they've heard; for another, it's in the nature of storytelling (and storytellers) to "creatively enhance" a yarn to make it more scary, more funny, and/or more believable. These processes can be seen at work in the "The Knock-Out Perfume."

Two sniffs and you're out!

On November 8, 1999, the Mobile, Alabama police department issued a press release stating the following:

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.
Naturally, the local media jumped on the story. A November 10 article in the Mobile Register quoted Johnson as saying her assailant offered her a $45 bottle of cologne for only $8 and talked her into to sniffing a sample. She did, once, and detected nothing odd about it. But when she sniffed it again she lost consciousness. The next thing she knew, Johnson told police, she was standing in different parking lot miles away, 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," she told the Register.

Within days, the story of Bertha Johnson's parking lot misadventure was all over the Internet.

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