7 Outrageous Hoaxes That Actually Worked

#3. Robert Fortune: "Chinese" Tea Thief

The Hoax:

In the mid-1800s, Great Britain was still buying most of its tea from China. This was a problem for the British government and merchants, because they could have been producing it in British India, thus growing it wholesale and passing the savings on to themselves. The problem is that the general consensus was that Chinese tea was better because of a manufacturing technique that was being kept secret from the West.

"It's probably got lots and lots of 'chi' in it."

So in 1848, the real life supervillains in charge of the British East India Co. sent botanist Robert Fortune into China to learn the secrets of growing and manufacturing Chinese tea. However, foreigners were not allowed in certain parts of China at this time, so Fortune had to pretend to be one of the locals and con his way into a tea factory. Simple, right?

Why No One Should Have Bought It:

Robert Fortune was the whitest-looking person in the world:

"Your move, Keanu Reeves."

In what sounds like a movie premise good enough to bring Dana Carvey out of retirement, Fortune had to dress up like a Chinese guy in order to infiltrate the Chinese tea industry. He didn't just need to pull this off with giant gray sideburns, but also with a Scottish accent, which he was only able to explain by saying he was from a "far province." You have to ask, could they actually not find even a single Asian guy in Britain to help them out here?

"Yeah, and the big fake teeth. This will totally look legit."

Somehow, he pulled it off. And not only did he rip off the Chinese for their tea secrets -- he also discovered that they were coloring their teas with poisonous dyes. The combination of cheaper tea and knowledge of poisonous tampering quickly ended the Chinese tea industry in Britain and helped inspire a century of being suspicious of Asians.

#2. General Electric Returns Its Tax Refund


The Hoax:

In April of 2011, General Electric was the focus of a scandal in which they were reported to be receiving a $3.2 billion tax refund. Soon after, the company apparently released an incredible press release stating that they would be returning the entire tax refund back to the United States Treasury, and that they would be doing so in order to "secure its position as a leader in corporate social responsibility."

Several news outlets, most notably the Associated Press, picked up the story and ran with it, which resulted in GE's stock falling by 0.6 percent, which, on a company worth over $42 billion, is more than $250 million.

"So what we have learned is never to be nice. Fetch the sack of kittens and the big stick."

Why No One Should Have Bought It:

The bombshell press release was the work of the group US Uncut (with some direction from activists The Yes Men), a self-proclaimed "grassroots movement taking direct action against corporate tax cheats and unnecessary and unfair public service cuts across the U.S."

The tax refund hoax was never meant to be taken all that seriously; in fact, it reads kind of like an Onion article, with GE's "CEO" announcing that "All seven of our foreign tax havens are entirely legal," and "While we owe it to our shareholders to use every legal loophole to maximize returns -- we also owe something to the American people. We didn't write the laws that let us legally avoid paying taxes. Congress did. But we benefit from those laws."

"And Congress benefited in ... other ways."

In addition, a simple call to the phone number provided on the press release would have resulted in a rather ridiculous phone runaround, much like that which CBS News experienced:

The first time CBS News called the number, the call went to voice mail with this recording: "Hey, you've reached Andrew and his prone-to-fail but nonetheless handy-dandy iPhone."

The second time CBS News called, the recording was of a computerized-sounding British woman's voice claiming that the caller had reached GE media -- which was closed.

Then someone called back claiming to be "Samuel Winnacker."

He asked for Jacques Strap and just breathed down the phone for 20 minutes.

In addition, the press release wasn't actually posted on GE's news website, genewscenter.com, but on the domain genewscenters.com, which had been registered only a week prior.

AP was forced to retract the story soon afterward and issued a public admission that they "did not follow its own standards in this case for verifying the authenticity of the news release."

And then GE returned the money anyway. No, we're totally kidding.

#1. The Cottingley Fairies


The Hoax:

Back in 1917, two little girls in Cottingley, England, cousins Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths, took a camera down to a nearby stream and took a bunch of photographs of themselves playing with fairies. Although their parents were initially skeptical, the photographs soon found their way into the hands of genuine fairy believers, because in those days, there was such a thing as genuine fairy believers.

And sanitariums, so thank goodness for that.

The story really took off when Sherlock Holmes author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle publically declared them to be legit. Doyle was an avid spiritualist, and his opinion on the matter came with a lot of clout. The biggest puzzle that the skeptics had to solve was how the children could have faked the photographs -- there was no Photoshop at the time, and photography experts analyzed the images again and again in an effort to find signs of tampering.

Why No One Should Have Bought It:

Let's take a look at one of these photographs and see how long it takes you to figure out how they did it. We'll wait.


We're not going to come right out here and say "People in the past were idiots," but come on now. If you look closely enough, you can almost see the pins holding the obviously two-dimensional cartoon fairies to the branches behind them. And that's exactly what's going on here -- the girls cut a bunch of fairy illustrations out of a popular children's book and attached them to tree branches using hat pins.

And also a goblin, but everyone agreed that went too far.

Of course, people will believe anything if they want to believe badly enough. The real mystery is how it fooled the creator of the world's greatest detective. This is part of the reason why the girls kept their mouths shut for so many years -- once Sherlock Holmes had verified their story, they knew they had gotten themselves in too deep.

It would be 1983 before the girls, now very old women, would finally admit to the hoax. By that time, the photographs had been analyzed again and again, looking for signs that Tinkerbell was real, and if she was, why she was so flat.

"The better to slip underneath your skin, humans."

Dwayne also reports on the West Michigan music scene for REVUE magazine and Kalamazoo Local Music, and has a blog and Facebook. Dustin Koski also often demonstrates his listical powers at Toptenz.

For more pranks to get you ready for April Fools', check out The 5 Most Ridiculous Lies Ever Published as Non-Fiction and 7 Clearly Fake News Stories That Fooled The Mainstream Media.

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