Japan Earthquake Triggers Radiation, Toxic Rain Web Hoaxes

Radiation, toxic rain, bogus fund-raising pages, Twitter death news and other hoaxes clogged e-mail inboxes and social networking sites after Japan's earthquake and tsunami.

A hoax SMS text message claiming the radiation from Japan's Fukushima nuclear power plant may hit the Philippines is making the rounds, causing a panic among the country's residents.

The Philippines' Department of Science and Technology confirmed the hoax on March 14. However, this is just one of dozens of different hoaxes emerging in the aftermath of the massive earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan's northeast region on March 11.

These fictitious accounts of what is happening in Japan are clogging the world's e-mail inboxes and spreading through social networking sites, spreading confusion and doubt about an already tense situation.

Hoax warnings about virus threats are a "nuisance," and the problem is even more severe when it's "not about a malware attack, but about a radiation health scare instead," Graham Cluley, a security consultant at Sophos wrote on the NakedSecurity blog.

Technology has "made it all too easy" to pass on scares without verifying facts, Cluley said.

"The advice circulating that people should stay indoors and to wear raincoats if they go outdoors has no basis and did not come from DOST or the National Disaster Risk Reduction Management Center," said Mario Montego, Philippine's Department of Science and Technology secretary.

One of the hoaxes that is being spread claims to be from "BBC Flashnews" and claims the Japanese government had confirmed a radiation leak at the "Fukushima nuclear plants," Cluley said. The message continues with a list of precautions residents in Asian countries should undertake, such as remaining indoors, closing doors and windows, and swabbing the thyroid area on the neck with betadine.

Other hoax messages misspell the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant as "Fukuyama," DOST said.

The messages are being spread through text messages, e-mails, Internet and "other means of communication," according to DOST. The department asked people to stop forwarding these messages so as "not to sow panic."

Companies and schools sent workers and students home after the rumors began to spread, according to Cluley.

DOST is in 24/7 communication with the International Atomic Energy Agency for advice on the current situation, and said that available data indicate "there is no immediate danger of nuclear radiation in the Philippines."

An e-mail containing a "nuclear fallout map" has also been seen. Emblazoned with the logo of Australian Radiation Services, the map claims to show how nuclear fallout will spread to Alaska and the West Coast of the United States over the next few days. Hoax-debunking site snopes.com analyzed the e-mail and said ARS is denying any connection with the map, and that the radiation levels claimed do not match the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission's statements.

Radiation is not the only post-earthquake hoax making the rounds. There was a Twitter post from "a friend in Chiba Prefecture" claiming toxic rain would fall as a result of an explosion at a Cosmo Oil refinery.

"There is no basis for this statement. The tank that exploded contained LP gas, and it is highly unlikely that any gas generated by the burning will cause harm to human bodies," the company said.

Criminals took advantage of the confusion to start pushing up malicious links to fake antivirus sites on search results pages early March 11, hours after the earthquake.

Twitter had at least two death hoaxes, for Satoshi Tajiri, the creator of the Pokemon franchise, and Yuko Yamaguchi, a Hello Kitty designer. Yamaguchi updated her blog March 14, and Nintendo posted on Twitter that no one at Nintendo in Japan was injured.

The International Red Cross, Red Crescent has also issued a warning to users to be vigilant of e-mails pretending to be from earthquake victims in order to raise money for the earthquake. "You may receive fraudulent e-mails regarding missing persons. If a stranger contacts you asking for money, please notify us immediately," the warning said.

Global Voices Online compiled a roundup of current hoaxes translated from Japanese sources and reminded users to think about the source of the information and to verify facts whenever possible.

"Take a deep breath," wrote Tomomi Sasaki, as the first step.