The Knockout Perfume Scam

One real incident launched viral emails worldwide

small bottles of perfume
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A scary story making the rounds on the internet since 1999 claims that criminals in the U.S. and elsewhere are using perfume samples spiked with ether or some kind of "knockout drug" to render victims unconscious before assaulting them and/or stealing their valuables.

Versions of this urban legend continue to circulate via email and social media. A Twitter message from 2015 reads:

"Pls if anyone stops U and ask if you're interested in some perfume and gives u a paper to smell, pls don't! It's a new scam, the paper is laced with drugs. You'll pass out so they can kidnap, rob or do worse things to you."

Knockout Perfume Scam

The closest any of these reports have come to being confirmed was apparently the case of Bertha Johnson of Mobile, Alabama, who told police in November 1999 that she was robbed of $800 after sniffing a cologne sample offered by a stranger and subsequently passing out in her car.

Toxicological tests, however, revealed no foreign substances in Johnson's blood.

Although the details morphed over time, later versions of the story echoed early news reports about the alleged Alabama incident. Instead of cologne, the tainted sample was said to be perfume; instead of an unknown soporific substance, the knockout drug was said to be ether. The moral of the story, originally "Beware of parking lot scammers," has evolved into "If I hadn't read this warning, I could have been a victim too. And so could you!"

It's typical for rumors, hoaxes, and urban legends to change as they're passed from person to person or inbox to inbox. As anyone who ever played the children's game "Telephone" can attest, perception and memory are fallible. It's in the nature of storytelling to enhance a yarn to give it more impact.

Alabama Police Get involved

In 1999, the Mobile, Alabama, police department issued this press release:

"On Monday, November 8, 1999, at approximately 2:30 p.m. Officers from the Third Precinct responded to the World of Wicker, at 3055 Dauphin Street. When the Officers arrived the victim, 54-year-old Bertha Johnson of the 2400 block of St. Stephens Road, advised she was rendered unconscious after smelling an unknown substance. Johnson was approached by an unknown black female...After the victim regained consciousness she discovered her property missing from her purse and her vehicle."

Local media jumped on the story. A Nov. 10 article in the Mobile Register quoted Johnson as saying that her assailant offered her a $45 bottle of cologne for $8 and talked her into sniffing a sample. She detected nothing odd about the aroma. But when she sniffed it a second time, she said, she lost consciousness. The next thing Johnson knew, she was sitting in another parking lot miles away from where she'd started, dazed, confused, and missing $800 in cash.

"I feel like I got flimflammed out of something that I should have known better than to even look out the window at her," Johnson told the Register.

Within days of the incident, Johnson's parking lot misadventure was all over the internet. No evidence ever verified her story.

Anonymous Email Warning

Johnson's firsthand report of her alleged run-in with a cologne scammer inspired an anonymous email cautioning all women to beware of parking lot vendors offering samples of cut-rate cologne. While it repeated some of the reported facts, it omitted others: the name of the victim, for example, and the name of the city in which the incident supposedly happened.

These omissions may have dampened the email's credibility. In general, narratives are more believable the more specific they are. But minus some of the particulars, the story took on an air of universality, as if to say: "This could happen to anyone, anywhere, even you, in your hometown."

"I just heard on the radio about a lady that was asked to sniff a bottle of perfume that another woman was selling for $8.00...She told the story that it was her last bottle of perfume that regularly sells for $49.00 but she was getting rid of it for only $8.00, sound legitimate? That's what the victim thought, but when she awoke she found out that her car had been moved to another parking area and she was missing all her money that was in her wallet (total of $800.00)...Anyway, the perfume wasn't perfume at all, it was some kind of ether or strong substance to cause anyone who breathes the fumes to black out."

Variants appeared almost instantly, usually localizing the story in places where no such crimes had been reported.

In early December a lengthier version emerged. A woman was approached in a Walmart parking lot by two young men hawking "designer perfume" for only $8 a bottle. In this variant, the potential victim is said to have declined to sniff the product and escaped unharmed. The email strongly urged that it be passed on to friends, loved ones, and co-workers.

The Rumor Spreads

The Walmart version was still going strong when another variant appeared describing yet another incident that allegedly occurred in the parking lot of a Plano, Texas, Target store. In this rendering, disaster is once again averted when the would-be victim rebuffs the salesman's advances before he tells her what he's selling. This warning gives the impression that similar crimes are being perpetrated all over the United States.

Come April 2000, a report of an incident in a Walmart parking lot is appended to the foregoing version. The two males described in this variant are neither hawking perfume nor asking anyone to sniff a sample. They merely ask what kind of perfume the narrator is wearing:

"I just wanted to pass along that I was approached yesterday afternoon at around 3:30 p.m. in the Walmart parking lot at Forest Drive by 2 males asking what kind of perfume I was wearing. I didn't stop to answer them and kept walking toward the store...I stopped a lady going toward them, pointed at them, and told her what they might ask and NOT to let them get near her."

Three Versions in One

The knockout perfume legend took the form of an omnibus version in 2000, including a new scenario that supposedly took place at a gas station in Des Moines, Iowa, followed by two of the previous versions.

"I was pumping gas at the Texaco station at Merle Hay and Douglas approximately a week and a half ago and a young girl walked up to me and asked if I'd like to sample some perfume scents. She said that they had all the latest fragrances. I looked over at her car which was a turquoise sub-compact and her boyfriend (?) was rooting through the trunk. I declined, saying that I had to get back to work...She said, "Thanks anyway", and went back to her car."

The Story's the Thing

Following the original Bertha Johnson report, not one of these anecdotes is supported by anything more than anonymous hearsay. It doesn't necessarily follow that every report is false, but skepticism is in order.

The moral people are conveying by amplifying and spreading this legend is familiar, amounting basically to little more than common sense: "Be careful out there." That's a wise policy, but repeating frightful stories with little or no factual basis might not be the best way to inspire prudent behavior.

Urban legends often take the form of cautionary tales, but it would be wrong to assume that they always function as such. Urban legends thrive mainly because they're emotionally gripping. To the extent that they serve any social purpose, it's probably more catharsis than anything—providing a belly laugh when we're blue or a bone-chilling scare to release pent-up tension. There's an all-too-human pleasure in provoking these reactions in others.

In days gone by, people sat in the glow of a campfire, scaring the pants off one another with horror stories for no other reason than that they enjoyed it. Human nature hasn't changed. We still enjoy scaring each other, only now we do it by the glow of a computer screen instead of a crackling fire.