Fact Check

HIV Needles in Coin Returns

Are drug users dropping discarded needles into pay phone coin returns?

Published Nov. 24, 2000

 (David Tran Photo / Shutterstock.com)
Image courtesy of David Tran Photo / Shutterstock.com
Drug users are disposing of their used needles by putting them into the coin return slots of public telephones, thereby infecting unsuspecting victims with hepatitis and HIV.

Just when you thought it was safe to leave the house, out pops another breathless piece of scarelore warning us about a new appearance of that bogeyman of our era, AIDS.

(A cousin to this scare has to do with deliberate infection of young people who are stabbed with contaminated needles by anonymous assailants at movie theatres and dance clubs. See our Pin Prick Attacks page for more about this related legend.)

This time it's drug addicts placing their used, HIV-laden needles into pay phone coin slots in order to stab (and infect) hapless, innocent victims who want nothing more than to retrieve a coin or two and receive death sentences for their troubles. (Drug addicts have been using syringes and needles for decades — you have to wonder why they didn't start leaving them in Pepsi cans and pay phone coin slots until after AIDS came to world-wide attention.) We're told that this isn't a tale from some "hearsay urban legend source," but rather from "phone company workers, through the EMT instructor." In other words, the one and only source for this warning is an unnamed EMT instructor somewhere who heard it from an unidentified telephone company workers somewhere. You can't beat that as a reliable source ...


[Collected on the Internet, 1998]

A very good friend of mine is in an EMT certification course. There is something new happening that everyone should be aware of. Drug users are now taking their used needles and putting them into the coin return slots in public telephones. People are putting their fingers in to recover coins or just to check if anyone left change. They are getting stuck by these needles and infected with hepatitis, HIV, and other diseases. This message is posted to make everyone aware of this danger. Be aware! The change isn't worth it!

P.S. - This information came straight from phone company workers, through the EMT instructor. This did NOT come from a hearsay urban legend source.

[Collected via e-mail, October 2007]

World Health Organization Warning

Very troubling important message!

This happened in the St. Bruno area of Montreal just a few days ago in a movie theater. A person sat down on something sharp on the seat. Upon examination, it turned out to be a needle with a note attached: You have just been infected with HIV. The Center for Disease control reports several similar events recently in other cities. All the needles tested positive. The center reports that needles were also found in the coin return section of public telephones, as well as in the coin return section of soft drink machines.

They are asking everyone to exercise extreme prudence in these situations. All public seating should be carefully scrutinized before using. A very careful visual inspection should suffice. Furthermore, you are asked to communicate this notice of potential danger to all your family and friends and as many people as possible. This notice is so important, you can save even one person from this danger by circulating this warning. Please, take a few seconds right now to pass this one.

To date, there are no known instances of contaminated needles turning up in pay phone coin returns, let alone an unsuspecting telephone user's being infected by one. "We have been looking at all of our phones and have not found a single instance of where this has happened," Bell Atlantic spokesman Cliff Lee said in a November 1998 article in The Buffalo News. A December 1998 article in the Chicago Tribune stated:

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control has no reports of any such infection, nor does the Howard Brown Memorial Health Center in Chicago that treats many HIV cases. The Illinois, Cook County and Chicago Departments of Public Health and the Chicago Police Department have no records of any such incidents.The Illinois Public Telecommunications Association, an umbrella group representing about 150 coin-operated phone companies, has no reports of needles found in pay phones, and Ameritech says that in our five-state region only once, more than two years ago, did someone find a hypodermic needle in a coin slot. That person was not stuck.

On 9 February 1999 two people were injured in Pulaski, Virginia, when they put their fingers into the coin return slots of pay telephones and were jabbed by (uncontaminated) needles left in those slots. The next day, four hypodermic needles were found — wrapped in cotton, thus not presenting much of a danger to anyone — in post office mail slots and a night deposit box in nearby Wythe County. No one was infected or seriously injured in those incidents.

Did the legend come true? We doubt it. You see, six days earlier the major newspaper of that area carried an article about this very legend, exposing it as a hoax. Most likely a prankster or two read it and decided to pull some legs.

On 29 October 2009 a student at Middle State Tennessee University was stuck by a hypodermic needle after reaching into the change dispenser of a Pepsi machine located on campus. She was treated at Middle Tennessee Medical Center and later released. Police are examining the syringe. A second syringe was discovered on 4 November 2009 in a "Vitamin Water" vending machine at that college's student center. No one was injured in that incident.

In 2000, some thoughtful soul re-worked the original scare about coin returns on pay phones into one focused on a variety of vending machines and set it in Canada:

[Collected on the Internet, 2000]

I am forwarding this email about something really scary I heard about today. Because it is certainly worth about, I am sending this out to you . . . Please read the following anecdote:

On an average day in your life, you are out and decide you are thirsty. You notice a pop machine in your surroundings. You go over to the pop machine, & drop in a loonie. After collecting your beverage, you reach in the little compartment to collect your 50 cents change. Once reaching in, you feel a sharp prick on the finger you inserted into the change box. Your finger is bleeding, you bend down to look inside the small area to see what pricked you. What you see is a small needle, with a note beside it: "YOU NOW HAVE THE H.I.V. VIRUS", it reads.

***This is not some scary fiction story! THIS IS NOW HAPPENING IN ALBERTA!!!...

Please read on and then pass this warning to people you care about. At our student council meeting this afternoon, our advisor (a teacher at the school) told us that last week, she received a phone call from a friend at the University of Lethbridge. THE ABOVE SCENARIO HAPPENED THERE RECENTLY at the University of Lethbridge) !!!

How many it happened to or why not many have heard about it is beyond me, but THIS IS REALLY HAPPENING!!!!!!!!!!! Police suspect that this is the work of a particular cult in western Canada. It (these incidents) began in Saskatchewan and have now spread into Alberta. The prime targets are major cities, but there's no saying that it couldn't occur in smaller towns.

It happened in Lethbridge and they are on the alert especially in Edmonton and Calgary.

What happens is that somehow someone inserts a syringe or a needle/pin that has been infected with the HIV virus into a vending machine compartment. Beside it they leave a note saying that whomever has been pricked and is now infected.


Whether it is where you'd get your change, or where you'd reach in and collect a can of pop or pick up a bag of chips... Be on the look-out for a note or a needle. In order for someone to read the note or get pricked by the needle, they must be in a place where, if they checked first, anyone could see it.

***Don't let yourself become a victim & Please PASS on!!!***

Despite the forceful claims made in this later version of the "AIDS needle found in coin return" scare, there have not been any such incidents in Edmonton, Calgary, or any other Canadian cities. Moreover, officials of the University of Lethbridge (Alberta) have been bedeviled by inquiries about this story since it first appeared on the Internet. All who have asked have been told the same thing: There haven't been any such attacks on their campus. (A February 2009 report about three people pricked by hidden hypodermic needles taped to doorknobs and a payphone in Vancouver, Washington, is still under investigation.)

This newer version of the "AIDS needle found in coin return" tale incorporates the "AIDS announcement note" motif of the earliest AIDS urban legend, the venerable AIDS Mary. (Fellow who foolishly invites woman he doesn't know to spend the night wakes to find her gone and "Welcome to the world of AIDS" scrawled in lipstick on his bathroom mirror.) This same motif is used in the later dance club versions of the "Pin-Prick Attacks" legend. (Girl dancing at popular nightclub feels a small prick on her arm, then finds the note stuffed into her pocket, taped to her back, or pressed into her hand.)

A few facts and common sense tips:

  • Yes, it's technically possible (and fairly easy) to detach a needle from a syringe and drop it into a pay phone coin slot.
  • No, there have not been any news reports of anyone's being infected (with anything) from a needle left in a pay phone coin slot.
  • Whereas a health care professional uses a syringe once before disposing of it, addicts hang on to their injection equipment until they can replace it. The desire to contaminate another with a serious illness is going to come in a far distant second to the need to keep the item for personal use until a new one is secured.
  • The big scare, of course, is contracting HIV after being jabbed by a needle. HIV lives only a short time outside of its host medium. Contact with an HIV-contaminated needle would have to occur while the contamination was still fresh to present a danger of infection.
  • Some people think it's funny to stick yucky (and dangerous) things on parts of pay phones, so it's always a good idea to examine the handset, push buttons, and coin slots of pay phones before touching or using them.

Additional information:

Health Related Hoaxes and Rumors   (Centers for Disease Control)


    Habuda, Janice.   "Internet Warning About Infected Needles in Pay Phones May Be Prank."     The Buffalo News.   27 November 1998   (p. B1).

    Hamburg, Jay and Gina Fann.   "No Truth Found in Two Urban Legends."     The Tennessean.   5 November 1998.

    Kennedy, Joe.   "Trace, Rather Than Pass, Tales of Alarm."     The Roanoke Times.   3 February 1999   (p. B1).

    Sluss, Michael.   "Urban Myth is Reality; Hypodermic Needles Found."     The Roanoke Times.   11 February 1999.

    Wilton, Suzanne.   "Needle Warning a Myth, Says Telus Spokesman."     Calgary Herald.   11 December 1998   (p. B2).

    Zorn, Eric.   "Finding Truth on Net Can Be Like Looking For a Needle in Pay Phone."     Chicago Tribune.   17 December 1998   (Metro; p. 1).

    Associated Press.   "Internet Warning About Infected Needles May Be a Prank."     28 November 1998.

    KGW-TV [Portland, OR].   "Hidden Syringe Needles Taped to Doorknobs and Phone Injure Three."     20 February 2009.

    Middle State Tennessee University Sidelines.   "Student Pricked By Needle in Pepsi Machine."     30 October 2009.

David Mikkelson founded the site now known as snopes.com back in 1994.