Christmas Pranks and Hoaxes

Abandoned Boy Tugs Nation's Heart Strings
On December 20, 1995 a 13-year-old boy called officials at Utah's social services and told them that he had been abandoned at a bus stop by his stepmother who had taken off for Mexico. When picked up, the boy, named Michael Ross, showed the officials his birth certificate and a letter from his stepmother explaining that his father had AIDS and his birth mother was dead. Michael's case triggered a nationwide outpouring of sympathy, and offers of money and shelter poured in. A few days later, however, the state officials made a discovery. "Michael Ross" was actually Birdie Jo Hoaks, a 25-year-old woman. Apparently she had tried this scam numerous times before, and her picture had been recognized by officials in Vermont. She was charged with making false or inconsistent material statements to a judge and theft of services.

X-mas Lights
In 1994 Keith Yelton, a resident of Gresham, Oregon, went all out with his outdoor christmas lights, stringing hundreds of them up all around his property. A few days later he received what appeared to be an official notice from the city informing him that he had violated an ordinance forbidding the display of more than 100 lights per house. Yelton panicked and shot a worried letter back to the city. The city officials who received his letter were puzzled, because they hadn't sent him any such warning. However, they suspected that the letter he received was part of a much larger fraud operation. Therefore, they launched a full-scale news campaign warning residents about this danger. The truth turned out to be much more prosaic. Yelton's letter had been sent by his friend, Jim Helser, who wanted to tease Yelton about his massive light display. Helser had left a clue in the letter for Yelton. It was signed "Hal. O. Gen". The city declined to press charges against Helser.

"Dear Santa, Can You Bring Me To Heven"
In December 1992 a letter addressed to Santa was dropped in a mailbox in Port Angeles, Washington. When opened by post office employees, this message was found inside: "Dear Santa, Please help my mom and dad this Christmas. My dad is not working anymore. We don't get many food now. My mom gives us the food she would eat. . . . I want to go to Heven too be with the angels. Can you bring me to Heven?" It was signed Thad. The letter, which included no return address, sparked a national outcry and prompted a massive effort to find Thad. However, handwriting analysts later concluded that the letter was not written by a child. Nevertheless, officials at the sheriff's department noted that even if Thad's letter was a hoax, this didn't detract from the reality that many families in America do face desperate circumstances, even during Christmas.

Christmas Tree Want Ad
A few days after Christmas 1989 a small ad appeared in an Austin, Texas newspaper. It read, "Need your Christmas tree, $2.50. Leave in driveway and ring doorbell." It also explained that the person at the given address needed the trees in order to build an artificial fishing reef in the lake adjoining their property. The Hunter family duly collected all the discarded trees in their neighborhood and loaded them into their truck, planning to use the money they made for a family bowling night. After an hour drive they arrived at the address and began unloading the trees. Immediately a woman emerged from the house waving her hands for them to stop. It turned out that the ad was just a prank. Versions of this prank have been in existence for years, involving supposedly wanted items such as stray cats and old tires. The lesson here is not to expect anyone to pay you for your trash.