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Urban Legend: You Can Trust (?)

For many years, I have trusted When my Dad circulates his “Glade air fresheners explode without warning while you sleep” warning emails, I refer him to Snopes where the “Urban Legends” are busted the way MythBusters do it on TV – with cold hard facts and evidence. Snopes has clarified thousands of scammy claims for us, helping to maintain clarifty in a see of deception. Until now? Has “you can trust” become an Urban Legend, too?

So anyway I Google’d “free 411” because I wondered why I didn’t know about this service until now, and surprise! is right up there near the top of the rankings. Huh? Is this a scam? So I clicked through and read a hugely promotional article about Jingle Network’s free411 service. It reads like an informercial!

“Claim: The phone number 1-800-FREE-411 offers free directory assistance service.”

Status: True.

What follows is an advertorial for the free 411 service. Not only that, but the page is titled and has a header of “Free 411”, and includes two direct backlinks to the Jingle networks website, with high quality anchor text and one word proximity to the word “free“. The content itself is so salesy I was offended:

One of the many changes that has taken place in the telephone industry in the last few decades is that while phone companies once generally provided their local customers with free directory assistance (via the 411 phone number), in most cases telephone customers are now charged a fee (typically $1.00 or more) for each directory assistance call. Despite the charges, U.S. consumers continue to avail themselves of the 411 directory assistance service, placing about 6 billion such calls per year.

Now, however, an outfit called Jingle Networks is providing an alternative directory assistance service — and it’s free. Users who call the toll-free number 1-800-FREE411 (or 1-800-373-3411) can navigate a nifty automated voice recognition system that asks for a location (city and state), type of listing (business, government, or residential), and name. Once the service has located an entry for the requested number, it reads the information aloud and offers the caller the option of connecting to the number by pressing a single number on his telephone keypad.

Add to that another 4 paragraphs of glowing endorsement including testimonial:

We made three separate trial calls to 1-800-FREE411 asking for information on different local businesses, and in each case the voice recognition system smoothly processed all our spoken information and correctly identified the businesses of interest. In only one trial out of the three were we presented with an audio advertisement.

The page even has meta keywords typical of, except for the first few keywords which appear to be hand crafted for optimization:

< META name="keywords" content="free directory assistance, 411, 1-800-FREE-411, 1-800-373-3411...

Go ahead and look at other Snopes pages… they have the same set of keywords, all targeting urban myths and legends and snopes, except for those first 3 obviosuly promotional ones. Is Snopes abusing our trust? There is no “sponsored” notice, and the About Us page says this can’t be:

We are not (and never have been) paid or provided with any other form of remuneration in exchange for writing about a particular topic.

Hey search marketers! If you’re still trying to spam wikipedia I’ve got news for you. Start a rumor that the great thing you are about to introduce to the market is just a rumor, and contact Barbara and David Mikkelson about getting a super cool promotional page on saying Yes! it’s true! Hard to believe, but they ARE bringing you this fabulous product! I can see it now… just two or three days after I publish this post, will there be a Snopes page proclaiming

Claim: Mahaolo is Better than Google.

Status: True! Mahaloo is human edited spam! Human edited spam is better than machine edited spam!“.

I kid. But to be fair, I did not intend to blog about this, but rather wrote a note to Snopes via their contact form. But when that form submission generated a 404 error, I decided to blog instead. Funny how that works. After all, if Snopes isn’t maintaining the very channel they say is the only way to notify them of problems with their site, I have further reason to suspect foul play.


  1. joe wrote:

    Awesome find. Even more telling that this article is unsigned.

    Monday, March 24, 2008 at 7:12 pm | Permalink
  2. Car Guy wrote:


    Just for fun, I scanned through the articles in the Something for Nothing section (same section as the 411 article). Half the “articles” read like a coupon site.

    Monday, March 24, 2008 at 11:26 pm | Permalink
  3. Russ wrote:


    there’s tons of crap on the Internet. As of today, I’m an avid reader of this site. Interesting post about Snopes. Not surprising.

    @Russ: Thanks for the feedback. I love your work… if Fezzari ever needs a full size rider to field test a Nebo Peak mountain bike, let them know I’d be happy to accept one and gleefully put it through evaluations on the trails of Galby. I’m riding a Kona Dawg now which fits the rocky rain forest riding perfectly. Kona and Rocky Mountain basically 0wn this territory right now.

    Thursday, April 17, 2008 at 11:28 am | Permalink
  4. kevin2971 wrote:

    You should try using also 1800-411-SAVE. It’s also free and you can request not only businesses but government offices and residential numbers as well.

    Tuesday, June 17, 2008 at 9:46 pm | Permalink
  5. BlueAngel8404 wrote:

    Good to know about! What is your take on regulating the internet and applying rules/laws to avert evil-doers? I know that is a task that the gov’t is attempting to tackle, but it is a big job. I can’t see much regulation outside the U.S., but I can see laws go into effect for what in occurring within the U.S. Freedom of speech has limits when something maliciously affects others.

    Friday, July 11, 2008 at 8:20 am | Permalink
  6. Jourdan wrote:

    I just tried to send a picture and email to through their website. The address that the website put into my outlook was

    I did not type it in so I know that it is not a typo.

    I got the following returned

    —– The following addresses had permanent fatal errors —–

    (reason: 550 no such address here)

    Saturday, October 25, 2008 at 10:22 am | Permalink
  7. Eric wrote:

    I’d just like to point out that everything in the entry is true and accurate, even if it sounds biased.

    Friday, October 16, 2009 at 3:00 pm | Permalink
  8. Charles Briggs wrote:

    I, personally, think SNOPES is biased (somewhat) leftward.
    But, either way, if they don’t have their their own agenda,
    why are they so hard to reach?

    Tuesday, November 24, 2009 at 6:40 pm | Permalink
  9. Jamie Q. wrote:

    This blog post is pathetic. First off, Snopes doesn’t claim to be the ultimate authority of anything. If you read their FAQ:

    Q: How do I know the information you’ve presented is accurate?

    A: We don’t expect anyone to accept us as the ultimate authority on any topic. Unlike the plethora of anonymous individuals who create and send the unsigned, unsourced e-mail messages that are forwarded all over the Internet, we show our work. The research materials we’ve used in the preparation of any particular page are listed in the bibliography displayed at the bottom of that page so that readers who wish to verify the validity of our information may check those sources for themselves.

    As for the items they research, I’m not sure where I read it, as it was many years ago, but I remember reading something about how the Mikkelsons only research emails and other claims that appear with great frequency, or with great interest. For example, certain chain emails that go extremely viral and are submitted by hundreds of people will be researched. Something like Barack Obama’s birth certificate may not be questioned by many people, but is of great interest. Now as to the accusation that some make that they lean politically one way or the other, all it takes is a simple perusal of all the articles on their website to determine that that claim is crap. They debunk just as much liberal BS as they do conservative BS. George Bush is killing children, and Barack Obama isn’t a Muslim. Hell, they even put up the article about the Marine who was crossing his fingers in the picture with Hillary Clinton (which was true).

    This is just another case of someone picking on those actually telling the truth. John, find something better to do, like actually telling the truth yourself.

    Monday, February 1, 2010 at 10:33 pm | Permalink
  10. Jan Pierce wrote:

    What ISN’T biased nowadays? And have we been conditioned to cry “bias” when the information (albeit accurate) simply doesn’t jibe with our perspective? Are “lies” and “bias” now considered synonymous?

    I’ve read other complaints about Snopes’s bias but were these complaints grounded in facts? I rely on Snopes to separate the wheat from the chaff, and if it’s publishing false information, I want to know about it. What reports compiled by Snopes have been proved false? If there have been incidents of false reporting, did Snopes issue a retraction and explain how it happened?

    I must be able to trust a source to tell the truth, in the simplest terms, even if that truth doesn’t jibe with what I want to hear.

    Sunday, May 16, 2010 at 7:55 am | Permalink