Five times we were tricked online

As October draws to a close, the time of trick or treating approaches! The act of visiting strangers’ homes for lollies may not be as popular down under as it is in the United States, but that’s okay. There’s plenty of tricks going around on the Internet for everyone in the world to enjoy.

While some scams are maliciously crafted to swindle victims out of their money, we’ve rustled up some other hoaxes in the history of the internet that were a lot more “fun” than “fraud”.


The rise and fall of Lonelygirl15

Bree, or Lonelygirl15, made her YouTube debut in 2006 with a video blog. Starting out slightly nervous, she soon opened up to be a typical 16 year old girl with a playful personality and a slightly erratic approach to video editing which was the style at the time. Her vlog may have gone unnoticed in the sea of other teenagers making similar video diaries, except for the fact that as she uploaded more videos, she began to reveal some concerning details about her life. Bree’s parents often don’t let her leave the house. Bree’s best friend Daniel feels uncomfortable with her family’s religious beliefs. Bree’s religious beliefs seem to be more like a cult than a church.

The tension created a riveted following for Bree’s YouTube channel, which didn’t diminish after it was proven in September 2006 that the whole thing was a fake. Played by actress Jessica Lee Rose, Bree was actually a fictional character in a full-blown interactive web series with multiple seasons and spin-off shows for different characters. Although the creators promptly fessed up after their cover was blown, they initially made every effort to portray Bree as a real girl, even creating a MySpace profile for her to interact with her fans. This year marks the 10th anniversary since the show’s creation, and you can take a look at the whole thing on the official Lonelygirl15 website.


Hot new kitten trend

Cats have always played an integral role in Internet culture, so it follows that one of the most well-known hoaxes involved kittens. ‘Bonsai kittens’, that is – a new way to keep fluffy kittens in jars, not unlike Bonsai trees. The website (now closed) first got mass attention when it was featured as “cruel website of the day” on another popular website in 2000.

Despite what the inflammatory text on the website suggested (including descriptions of injecting the felines with muscle relaxants so they’d better adapt to the form of their new container) no cats were ever actually harmed by the website’s creator. He just took some photos of cats in jars before letting them out again.

The hoax was so successful in driving public outrage and amassing worldwide attention through chain emails, however, that hundreds of complaints were received by groups such as the Animal Welfare Institute. At one point the website was even investigated by the FBI – all because a university student played a prank.


Only you can Save Toby

At the beginning 2005, possibly learning from the Bonsai Kitten controversy, an enterprising pair decided to make a charity website with one clear cause: cough up $50,000 or the rabbit gets it. Calling for donations to pay for Toby the rabbit’s care, the creators claimed that Toby would be cooked and eaten if they didn’t reach their goal by July.

The deadline was extended several times – first to November 2006 and then to Thanksgiving Day, 2006 to celebrate the release of their new book, Save Toby: Only YOU have the power to save Toby! which included delicious rabbit recipes and instructions for running a similar website.

Whether it was because people found it funny or because people were genuinely scared for Toby’s welfare, the website did actually claim to raise over $24,000. The hoax had a happy ending: after the ‘Save Toby’ website was purchased by, it was announced that Toby was “saved” once and for all – although he was probably never really in danger in the first place.


When animals attack

Animal attacks seem to be a popular medium for telling fibs. While a real animal attack can have horrific consequences, fake ones are harmless, so they’re often funny. One of the most famous fake images in internet history has been making the rounds through chain emails since 2001, typically with a caption like “And you think you’re having a bad day at work!”.

Although Photoshopped images are commonplace today, fifteen years ago a lot of people were a lot more ready to take images at face value. After claims that the photo had been chosen as “National Geographic Photo of the Year”, National Geographic had to publicly state that the photo had received no such award and it was actually a hoax. The shark was actually photographed along the African coast by a National Geographic photographer, Charles Maxwell. The photo of the helicopter, on the other hand, was taken by Lance Cheung on the other side of the world. To date, no one knows who combined the two images.


Lil Miquela

Fast forward to 2016 and you’ll still find no shortage in spoofed images, jokes or satirical news sites. With serious advancements in the rapid, widespread exchange of information, hoaxes are usually debunked much more quickly than they were ten years ago, possibly because people enjoy wading into the debate about a content’s legitimacy. Take Lil Miquela on Instagram for example – she’s got around 100,000 followers and she doesn’t even exist.

To an experienced eye, Lil Miquela is clearly the creation of an unknown digital artist. However, if you take a look at the way some children’s pageant glamour shots are edited, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Lil Miquela might be a real person whose photo has been heavily edited and airbrushed to simply look fake.

There are a lot of different news websites who’ve covered the Lil Miquela ‘controversy’ and there are already suspicions that it’s all a viral marketing campaign for the upcoming Sims 5 game. Thousands of people seem happy to wade into the debate about whether she is real or not, and that just seems to be another form of entertainment society harvests from hoaxes. They’re not going away any time soon – let’s just hope they stick to digital selfies instead of anything malicious.

Do you recall a favourite internet hoax? Let us know in the comments.

Image credits

  • Lonelygirl15 on YouTube
  • Bonsai Kitten – [alias] Dr. Michael Wong Chang
  • [website now closed]
  • “Shark Attack” – two photos originally taken by Charles Maxwell and Lance Cheung, spliced together by an unknown person.
  • Lilmiquela on Instagram


  1. Caro says:

    Biggest internet hoax in history – Y2K !!!

  2. Janice Wade says:

    Very interesting info. I would of liked info on phone scams for those of us who are “team iiNet” completely. I personally had an 03 no. popping up on my iPhone, which wasn’t a contact. iiNet’s excellent mobile team checked that this no. was in fact a scam & fortunately for me had not used “my mobile no” to piggy back their calls. Blocked My Sis (“team iiNet” too), started receiving similar calls. I advised to block immediately. The scammers tried again with an 02 no. & that was blocked too. I would like to thank all of your teams as they do a terrific job inline with your customer service training & Corporate vision (IMHO). It’s people not the products in particular, which make iiNet a great choice.
    Kind Regards,
    Janice Wade
    Dip. Marketing (Dist.)

  3. Paul Blundell says:

    You didn’t mention the millenium bug !
    The biggest one of all.