It's a vicious scheme, this plan to slap a 5-cent surcharge on e-mails as a way to prop up a struggling U.S. Postal Service.

It's also an imaginary — though well-traveled — one. As a point of fact, no such move to impose a fee on e-mail is being contemplated.

For more than a year, e-mail warnings have been circulated regarding a congressional bill designated 602P. Under the bill, which "must be opposed immediately," the U.S. Postal Service would receive a nickel for every e-mail that's sent, a way for Americans to apologize for bypassing the mail in favor of cyber-communication.

The warnings tell how Rep. Tony Schnell has proposed it, Congress has embraced it and only a flood of opposition from American voters can stop it.

The e-mail warning supposedly started with someone named Kate Turner, assistant to Richard Stepp of Berger, Stepp and Gorman, attorneys at law, 216 Concorde St., Vienna, Va.

In reality, it started in Canada, where early versions said that one of that country's lawmakers — you guessed it! The evil Tony Schnell — had promoted the plan. Later, references to Canada were removed, an American "address" was added and it became our problem.

Americans have responded in droves, outraged at such a proposal. But while elected leaders are listening, they're also nonplussed and frustrated. They're being buried under protests about something that doesn't exist, which makes it a difficult problem to address.

On the face of it, the e-mail is a hoax, the stuff columns are written about in national newspapers and on hoax-debunking Web sites.

Congress doesn't designate its bills with a P. House bills are H, Senate bills are S, and one assumes the P means "pretend."

Furthermore, there's no Rep. Tony Schnell, no law firm of Berger, Stepp and Gorman, not even a Concorde Street in Vienna, Va.

But the hoax has generated so much concern that government agencies are responding to it in record numbers, including the U.S. Postal Service, the House of Representatives, the Federal Communications Commission, even the U.S. Department of Energy.

A statement on the U.S. Postal Service Web site calls it a "completely false rumor" and says that the service has "no authority to surcharge e-mail messages sent over the Internet, nor would it support such legislation."

The hoax refers to an editorial that it says ran in the March 6 issue of The Washingtonian. The Washingtonian, on its Web site, notes that "we never wrote such an article or editorial. We do not have a March 6 issue. We do not know who started this rumor, but it is not true."

The tax hoax is featured on half a dozen or more Web sites, including and others. It's been debunked in dozens of newspaper and magazine articles. But it has more lives than all of Aunt Tillie's cats combined.

There's a companion hoax that has officials equally flustered. Warnings, sometimes sent with the postage warning, say that steps are afoot so that Internet access calls can be treated —and billed —as long-distance calls.

Again, it's bunk.

Not only is no proposal for Internet access fees before Congress, but last year the FCC issued an order exempting Internet users from access charges. Now Congress is considering a bill that would lay the possibility to rest by slapping an unconditional prohibition on Internet access fees.

And experts are asking people to check out such dire e-mail warnings before forwarding them to family, friends and colleagues.