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Snatch and Sniff

Claim:   Robbers in shopping mall parking lots are using ether-filled perfume bottles to render their victims unconscious.

FALSE

Examples:

[Collected via text message, October 2009]

WARNING: Men r tryin 2 sell Perfume in Prkin lots DONT SMELL IT Its Not perfume. U will pass out! new Rape tactics! pls pass on 2 all women u know!
 

[Collected via e-mail, July 2009]

One of the latest scams going round is that someone will stop you and ask if you are interested in perfume, they hand you a paper to smell - DON'T - the paper is laced with drugs, you pass out, they then rob you or worse. Pass this on to any girls you know, apparently it happened very recently in the Asda car park.
 

[Collected via e-mail, 2006]

This is something that happened to us on the way back from vacation last spring. I didn't think much of it until now. The reason we were a little suspicious is we had been riding in a jeep all day with 100 degrees temps and we stopped at a truck stop for something to drink. When I was leaving, a young girl followed me out and asked what kind of cologne I was wearing. Well, after 7 hours in the car sweating, I don't think you could tell I was or was not wearing any cologne. We just got in the jeep and said no thanks.

Then it was about 3 weeks ago, I was at a service station in Birmingham getting gas. It was about 9:30 pm. I was approached by 2 men and 2 women in a car. The man that was driving asked me 'What kind of perfume do you wear?' I was a bit confused and I asked him 'Why?' He said, 'We are selling some name brand perfumes, at cheap prices.' I said I had no money.

He then reached out of the car and handed me paper that was laminated; it had many perfumes on it. I looked quickly at it and gave it back. I said, I have no money. He said it is OK, we take check, cash, or credit cards. Then the people in the car began to laugh. I just got in my car and said no thanks.

Then I received this e-mail yesterday and it sent chills up my spine. Please read this. It is no joke. Here is the e-mail I was sent.

Dear Friends:

I know not all of you are women that I am sending this to, but am hoping you will share this with your wives, daughters, mothers, sisters, etc. Our world seems to be getting crazier by the day. Pipe bombs in mailboxes and sickos in parking lots with perfume. Be careful. I was approached yesterday afternoon around 5:30 PM in the Walmart parking lot by two males asking what kind of perfume I was wearing.

Then they asked if I'd like to sample some fabulous scent they were willing to sell me at a very reasonable rate. I probably would have agreed had I not received an e-mail warning of a "Wanna smell this neat perfume?" scam.

The men continued to stand between parked cars, I guess to wait for someone else to hit on. I stopped a lady going towards them, pointing at them and told her about how I was sent an e-mail at work about someone walking up to you at the malls or in parking lots and asking you to SNIFF PERFUME that they are selling at a cheap price.

THIS IS NOT PERFUME...IT IS ETHER!

When you sniff it, you'll pass out. They'll take your wallet, your valuables and heaven knows what else.

If it were not for this e-mail, I probably would have sniffed the 'perfume' but thanks to the generosity of an e-mailing friend, I was spared whatever might have happened to me.

I wanted to do the same for you.

PLEASE PASS THIS ALONG TO ALL YOUR WOMEN FRIENDS AND PLEASE BE ALERT AND BE AWARE. IF YOU ARE A MAN AND RECEIVE THIS, PASS IT ON TO YOUR WOMEN FRIENDS.

Ladies, this happened to me yesterday and I didn't smell the perfume either, thanks to this email. This is true. Believe me, I know. I was over by Big Lots in the parking lot at lunch time when I was approached. So either day or night, it does not matter. There were 3 guys together when I was approached. I called the police when I got back to my desk. Like the email says above, LET EVERYONE KNOW ABOUT THIS - YOUR FRIENDS, FAMILY, CO-WORKERS, whomever. It helped me. The first thing that popped into my head was this e-mail warning.
 

[Collected via e-mail, 2001]

PLEASE PASS THIS ALONG TO YOUR WOMEN FRIENDS!!!

I was approached yesterday afternoon around 3:30pm in the Wal-Mart parking lot at Forest Drive, by two males, asking what kind of perfume I was wearing. Then they asked if I'd like to sample some fabulous scent they were willing to sell me at a very reasonable rate. I probably would have agreed had I not received an email some weeks ago, warning of a "wanna smell this neat perfume?" scam.

The men continued to stand between parked cars, I guess to wait for someone else to hit on. I stopped a lady going towards them, pointed at them, and told her about how I was sent an e-mail at work about someone walking up to you at the malls or in parking lots, and asking you to SNIFF PERFUME that they are selling at a cheap price.

THIS IS NOT PERFUME - IT IS ETHER!

When you sniff it, you'll pass out. And they'll take your wallet, your valuables, and heaven knows what else. If it were not for this e-mail, I probably would have sniffed the "perfume". But thanks to the generosity of an emailing friend, I was spared whatever might have happened to me. I wanted to do the same for you.

PASS THIS ALONG TO ALL YOUR WOMEN FRIENDS, AND PLEASE BE ALERT, AND AWARE!!
 

[Collected via e-mail, 2000]

I WAS SENT AN E-MAIL AT WORK ABOUT SOMEONE WALKING UP TO YOU AT MALLS OR PARKING LOTS AND ASKING YOU TO SNIFF PERFUME THEY ARE SELLING AT A CHEAP PRICE. THIS ISN'T REALLY PERFUME BUT ETHER, AND YOU WILL PASS OUT AND THEY TAKE YOUR WALLET AND ALL YOUR VALUABLES. THIS IS NOT A PRANK E-MAIL, THIS IS TRUE BECAUSE I WAS STOPPED IN GOVERNORS SQUARE PARKING LOT TODAY.

A MAROON CAR PULLED UP TO ME WITH TWO FEMALES. THE FEMALE ON THE PASSENGER SIDE ROLLED DOWN THE WINDOW AND ASKED ME IF I WOULD BE INTERESTED IN "SNIFFING" SOME PERFUME THEY WERE SELLING. I REMEMBERED THE E-MAIL I JUST RECEIVED YESTERDAY, AND SAID NO. SHE ASKED ME A SECOND TIME, KEPT ON WALKING SAID NO ONCE AGAIN AND THEY PULLED OFF. IF IT WEREN'T FOR THE E-MAIL, I VERY WELL MAY HAVE DONE IT. PLEASE PASS THIS ON TO ALL YOUR FRIENDS AND TELL THEM TO BEWARE. THIS IS TRUE!! IF IT WEREN'T FOR THE E-MAIL I GOT YESTERDAY, I COULD VERY WELL MAY HAVE BEEN A VICTIM. (AIN'T GOD GOOD?) REMEMBER TO PASS THIS ON!!!!!
 

Origins:   The scenario described above isn't a real danger. No one has reported having been robbed in this manner, save for one woman in 1999 whose claim was suspect (for reasons we discuss below). This legend doesn't even describe a plausible scenario because, despite what books and TV Perfume shows may depict, rendering a person unconscious from a mere sniff or two of some substance is not easy to do. Ether is nasty, volatile stuff that requires a great deal more than a few brief inhalations to knock a person out. In fact, it's hard to think of any substance that could produce the instant unconsciousness described here.

This legend appears to have begun in late 1999 with a widely-circulated Internet message that used one specific news report as a basis for implying that ether-wielding robbers were a potentially widespread menace:
Watch out-this is for real!

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 (In a mall parking lot). 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). Pretty steep for a sniff of perfume!

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.

SO, Please beware . . . Christmas time is coming and we will be going to malls shopping and we will have cash on us.

Ladies, please don't be so trusting of others and beware of your surroundings-ALWAYS! Obey your instincts!
The incident described above was "real" in the sense that a Mobile, Alabama, woman claimed it happened to her on 8 November 1999 and reported the alleged robbery to the police, but it's false in that no evidence ever surfaced to verify her story.

Bertha Johnson, a 54-year-old Mobile woman, maintained that at about 2:00 PM on Monday, 8 November, she had pulled into the parking lot of a bank when a woman approached her car and offered to sell her bottles of cologne that ordinarily retail for $45 for the low price of $8. Ms. Johnson says she sniffed a sample of the cologne, and the next thing she knew it was around half an hour later, she was standing with her keys in her hand at a wicker store two miles away from the bank, her head was throbbing, and $800 she had been carrying ($500 of her own money plus $300 of her employer's) was missing. However, her claim had some surface implausibilities:
  • Ms. Johnson was allegedly robbed on her way into a bank. How did the robber know she had a significant amount of money on her? Not everybody walks into a bank with a wad of cash — was the robber simply choosing random victims in the hopes of hitting on one who did? If so, how come no one else has reported being the victim of such a robbery attempt? We have to assume that this is a brand new crime scheme, and that the perpetrator hit the jackpot on the very first try (and apparently hasn't used it since).
  • As Dr. Matthew Barnhill, a toxicologist with the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences noted, it's difficult to imagine what substance could have been used to cause someone to pass out so quickly from a single sniff. Any drug or chemical that could immediately knock a victim out merely through his inhaling it (rather than ingesting or injecting it) would have to be quite potent indeed.
  • We might also consider that Ms. Johnson was carrying money belonging to her employer at the time of the alleged robbery, and that pretending to be robbed while carrying someone else's money is a classic theft scheme. As well, when she allegedly "came to" following the assault, she was not sitting in her car, but "standing up" with her "keys in her hand." Maybe she did regain consciousness in stages, passing through a state similar to sleepwalking before becoming fully aware again. On the other hand, waking up in a car isn't likely to draw much attention; but showing up in a parking lot, wandering around in a dazed state, will almost certainly create a few believable witnesses who will remember having "found" a crime victim.
Sure enough, several weeks later the toxicology reports concerning tests run on blood and urine samples taken from Ms. Johnson immediately after the alleged attack did not indicate the presence of any unusual or abnormal substance in her system. The case remains officially open, but this one smells like a scam cooked up by Ms. Johnson to abscond with her employer's money.

Now, in true urban legend fashion, this tale has gone from a news report of an alleged victim's unsubstantiated story to a general warning that this sort of thing might happen to you to a specific warning that this type of robbery is actually happening. It isn't happening though, and it probably never did, not even once.

It's interesting to see how little occurrences that aren't even part of the scenario described are now being reported as evidence of narrow brushes with these non-existent robbers. For example, the following was prefaced to the example cited at the top of the page:
Some of you got this email some weeks ago like me. I just wanted to pass along that I was approached yesterday afternoon at around 3:30 p.m. in the Wal-Mart 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.

At the same time I remembered this email. The men continued to stand between parked cars — I guess to wait on someone else to hit on. 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. When that happened, the men and a lady (I don't know where she came from!) started walking the other way toward their car parked in far corner of the parking lot. I thank Jane Shirey for passing this along — it might have saved me from a robbery. I'm passing this along to you'all so you can warn the women in your life to watch out for this ...
Now, men asking passing women about the perfume they're wearing isn't at all the same thing as crooks using rigged perfume bottles to knock out their victims. The fact is, some companies (such as Scentura) do hire people to sell perfume door-to-door or in parking lots, and some of these salespeople do indeed work in pairs, pitch their wares from cars, and employ aggressive sales tactics (which include approaching women and asking them what
kind of perfume they have on). But now that this legend is circulating, people dutifully report any sighting of perfume-selling strangers in parking lots as "proof" of this fictional crime wave of ether-bearing robbers being real.

Indeed, we routinely receive e-mails from women who have had encounters with folks vending perfume in parking lots and who have concluded (based on nothing but spurious rumor) that they were about to be robbed. They write to report we're all wrong about this sort of robbery not taking place because hadn't they themselves almost had it happen to them? That no "knockout potions" were offered to them and no robberies (completed or attempted) took place does little to dissuade them from their certainty that they came within a hair's breadth of harm at the hands of some innocent freelance perfume sellers.

We wrote the original article about this rumor in 2000. As far along as April 2006, Alabama police were still having to field reports on this non-existent form of crime and inform the public that it's a hoax:
Police are debunking as a hoax reports of a man trying to use ether to abduct a young girl outside Eastdale Mall.

Capt. Huey Thornton said the report, generated in an e-mail circulating throughout Montgomery, is false.

Thornton said the people named in the e-mail asserted their daughter was approached by a man outside the mall, but that details of the e-mail have been "significantly embellished."

The e-mail states that investigators told the couple a man posing as a perfume salesman had asked other young girls to "smell the perfume on his hand," which turned out to be ether.

"The Montgomery Police Department is not familiar with any cases in the city where a subject matching the description in the e-mail has approached anyone posing as a perfume salesman or any cases where ether has been involved."
Since 2000 (when we wrote our original article), we've been keeping our ears and eyes open for news of any instances of this sort of robbery happening in real life. So far, the closest thing to arise is a July 2008 case in a town in Louisiana.

In Houma, Louisiana, a woman named Patches Wegmann was arrested after two men she plied with cologne claimed to have suffered ill effects from what she'd had them breathe in. The first said she accosted him, sprayed a cologne sample on a piece of paper, and waved it under his nose. Subsequently, after he returned to work, he passed out, his symptoms including dizziness, shortness of breath, and numbness in his extremities. The second said the cologne's fumes left him feeling light-headed, and it irritated his skin.

Wegmann was charged with second-degree battery and unlawful solicitation, but the battery charge has to do with forcing perfume samples upon unwilling parties, not because there was anything necessarily noxious in the substance she forced upon them. The incident remains under investigation, and authorities say it’s not clear that anything other than perfume was sprayed on either man.

Update:   In 2001 a false Internet rumor about seven women having died after sniffing perfume samples sent to them in the mail spread in the wake of the September 11 attacks. This newer rumor was a combination of two older and equally baseless scares: the 1999 "perfume robbers" tale (which is the topic of the article above) and the 2000 Klingerman Virus warning about blue virus-laden sponges mailed in envelopes marked "A gift for you from the Klingerman Foundation" which supposedly caused 23 deaths. The 2001 "deadly perfume samples" rumor brought into play the specter of lurking terrorists using the U.S. mail system to murder the innocent in a women-targeted replay of the anthrax mailings horror. The "deadly perfume samples" rumor is distinct and indeed far removed from the "perfume robbers" one, yet folks are prone to confuse the two because they both use the word 'perfume.'

Additional information:  
    Victim Didn't Detect Any Strange Odor Victim Didn't Detect Any Strange Odor
(Mobile Register)
    Woman Dazed After Being Asked to Smell Unknown Substance Woman Dazed After Being Asked to Smell Unknown Substance
(Mobile Police Department)
Last updated:   10 November 2010

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Sources:

    Colquitt, Ron.   "Victim Didn't Detect Any Strange Odor."
    Mobile Register.   10 November 1999.

    Colquitt, Ron.   "Tests Negative on 'Cologne Bandit' Victim."
    Mobile Register.   26 January 2000.

    King, Naomi.   "Perfume Spraying Leads to Arrest."
    HoumaToday.com.   12 July 2008.

    Silvey, Stefanie.   "Real or Rubbish: Ether-Wielding Perfume Vendors."
    WFIE-TV [Evansville, IN].   29 March 2004.

    Associated Press.   "Woman Reports Theft of $800 After Sniffing Cologne."
    10 November 1999.

    Montgomery Advertiser.   "Police Say E-Mail Report Is a Hoax."
    27 April 2006.

    WAFB-TV [Baton Rouge, LA].   "Patches Arrested, Police Say Her Scent Made Men Pass Out."
    11 July 2008.