Anyone can be fooler of the world

A CERTAIN HG Wells came up with the idea first: invent a fancy machine, step inside, press a few buttons and before you ask what the time is, you’re drinking tea with the ancestors.

Science fiction? Fantasy? Unbelievable? Perhaps . . .

The story goes that the FBI arrested Andrew Carlssin, suspicious after he turned $800 into $350 million in a few months on the stock exchange.

He then confessed to being a time traveller. Initial inquiries showed that there were no records of him before December 2002, and officials were quoted on the depth of the mystery.

The story caught the imagination and quickly went round the world. From its beginnings on the internet it made its way into main stream media. Accountancy Age, The Mirror, even the Times and the Guardian carried news of the story.

News websites and media around the globe - from Japan to Germany, Australia to the UK - took it up. The story carried amazing detail: how FBI agents investigating allegations of insider dealing swooped to arrest the 44-year-old trader, only to be amazed by his four-hour long video-taped confession.

Carlssin didn’t bother with the traditional "it wasn’t me, it was that other bloke whose name I forget" type excuses, they reported. Instead he offered the mind-boggling modern day Dr Who "confession" that has gone on to virtually cripple internet search engines, clogged up e-mails and sparked "yes-he-is, no-he-isn’t" debates in pubs and offices around the world.

"It was just too tempting to resist," he reportedly said. "I had planned to make it look natural, you know, lose a little here and there so it doesn’t look too perfect. But I just got caught in the moment."

In return for leniency and the chance to go back to the future in his "time craft", he then kindly offered to divulge a string of "historical facts" such as where Osama Bin Laden might be hiding and a cure for Aids.

"The fact is, with an initial investment of only $800, in two weeks he had a portfolio valued at over $350 million," said an unnamed US Securities and Exchange Commission insider quoted on the website which broke the story. "We don’t believe this guy’s story - either he’s a lunatic or a pathological liar."

And, of course, most people who stumbled across the story on the US-based Weekly World News site where it originated, would not have believed it either.

Nestling alongside stories such as Ten Ways to Tell if Your Co-Worker is an Extra-Terrestrial!, Schools will Soon Force Your Children to Take Drugs! and Iraqi Submarine Prowling Lake Michigan!, the insider-dealing time traveller almost begins to look true.

But it was what happened to the story next that made it the latest virtual myth to stir the world.

"So many people have computers and internet access, that once something appears on a website somewhere it doesn’t take very long for it to be picked up and e-mailed around the world," says James Harding, editor of Computer Active.

"People can put whatever they like on internet sites, things that are totally untrue, without any comeback. And once they are there, it’s very easy for other people to pick up on them. Before you know it, something that might or might not be true is being taken as fact.

"There are all kinds of internet hoaxes and cons out there and celebrity websites that are just gossip. It’s amazing how many people can be duped into believing them."

But just why have so many people apparently fallen for this one?

From humble beginnings in the weird and wacky Weekly World News site, the time travelling trader story began its journey from a computer in Boca Raton in Florida to one of the world’s biggest internet search engines - Yahoo. Tellingly, it appeared under their entertainment news and gossip section, the source - Weekly World News - clearly attributed.

Yet still it has found its way thousands of miles around the world.

At FBI Headquarters in Washington, spokesman Bill Carter is well aware of the story. "I had a call about this yesterday too," he sighs. "When I think about it, the other call came from Britain too.

"Look," he continues. "I doubt very much the veracity of the story. I am not aware of any individual who has made 350 million on the stock market with an 800 stake."

But, as the thousands of internet users who have stuck their necks out in support of Carlssin - such as one chatroom entry posted by "Amanda" which pleaded: "I’d like to get in touch with Andrew Carlssin. Do you know where he can be reached?" - will eagerly point out, simply "doubting the veracity" of something doesn’t mean isn’t really true.

Does it?

"There might well have been an individual by that name arrested for fraud in any one of our field offices out there - we arrest hundreds of people each week," continues our man at the FBI, perhaps unwittingly adding fuel to the flames.

"But the notion that there may be a time traveller out there has not reached the attention of FBI headquarters."

The spokesman at the US Security and Exchange Commission in Washington gives a weary sigh and then a slightly strained chuckle when he hears the words "time traveller" and "inside trader".

"This story is pure fantasy. There is no truth in it at all," he says. "This is the kind of story that belongs in the same file as "Elvis Shrine Found on Mars.

"You know something? We have had an enormous number of calls from the media on this one. It has been absolutely amazing. Of course, we had to look into it, but as far as we know, it’s just not true."

Nevertheless, that hasn’t stopped various radio stations and publications including Accountancy Age, The Mirror and eFinancialNews.com repeating the story almost word for word. At least The Times and the Guardian kept their tongues firmly in their cheeks: "Even a non-time traveller could have told him that profiting from 126 consecutive high-risk trades over two weeks was sure to get him noticed," commented the Guardian.

A handful of others pointed out that any time traveller with half a brain would not bother popping back to 2003, just when the stock market is in free fall and anyone who actually makes any money at all would stick out like a 25 ft tall green alien with two heads.

Yet still not everyone is convinced the story is 100 per cent hokey. Internet search engines say they have been inundated with requests for Andrew Carlssin - one reported averaging a hit every 11 seconds just after the story broke.

Over at www.snopes.com, which sniffs out the hoaxes and myths which flood the web, the Carlssin story was quickly revealed as more sci-fi fantasy than an Arthur C Clarke novel.

"All one need know about this article is that it originated with the Weekly World News, an entertainment tabloid devoted to inventing fantastically fictitious stories while keeping its tongue firmly embedded in its cheek to a depth not measurable by any instrument known to man," it warns. "Unfortunately Yahoo!, a primary news source for many people on the internet, reprints some Weekly World News articles in their TV News section under a heading of entertainment news and gossip, a title that doesn’t convey a strong ‘bogus’ warning to readers who don’t notice the original source is the Weekly World News or don’t know what the Weekly World News is."

Still, it takes more than cold, hard facts to curb a worldwide fascination with time travel.

After all, it was none other than Albert Einstein who, using little more than high-school maths, discovered in 1905 that travelling at fast speeds actually slows down time.

To put the theory to the test, in 1971 scientists Joe Hafele and Richard Keating put highly accurate atomic clocks into aeroplanes and flew them around the world.

According to Einstein’s calculations, on their return they should have read 59 nanoseconds slow compared with identical clocks on the ground - they did.

Rack up the speed to a much more significant level and who knows where it might take you. Just remember, the truth is out there. . .