A horde of hoaxsters are out to pull the Web wool over your eyes. Here are ways to tell the bogus from the bona fide:

It’s getting harder and harder to stay celibate in cyberspace. This Aug. 4 was supposed to be the day that the infamous ”Internet virgins,” Mike and Diane, did the wild thang live and on the Web at http://www.ourfirsttime.com. It’s not exactly like landing on the moon — there’s cybercopulation aplenty already — but the reality angle caused the mainstream TV and news media to jump on the story. That is, until the whole deal turned out to be like the Monica Lewinsky home page of this past January: just another webscam.

If people whose job it is to ferret out duplicity online are so easily snookered, how can the average surfer differentiate between Internet tricks and treats? Especially when some of the strangest stuff online turns out to be real, like the Heaven’s Gate-cult website or the mom who gave birth live on the Web? The best way is to go cybersleuthing and turn to a few digital detectives who make it their mission to debunk Net mythology and unmask scam artists.

Among the most virulent Net hoaxes are those E-mail chain letters warning of computer viruses. Ever vigilant, the hoaxes section of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Computer Incident Advisory Capability site (ciac.llnl. gov//ciac/CIACHoaxes.html) keeps tabs on many of them. Here you’ll find the dope on the ever-popular Good Times virus (which one assumes is only dangerous if the ’70s sitcom is reincarnated on Nick at Nite). For a less technical and a more levelheaded approach to these warnings, there’s also the Computer Virus Myths site (http://www.kumite.com/myths). Just remember to be suspicious of anything with a ”Please pass this along to friends!” tag.

When it comes to websites purporting to be by former White House interns or current virgins, similar caveats apply: If it looks too tempting to be true, it probably is. Unfortunately, there’s no reliable online guide to fake websites as yet, though several sites document real-world tall tales. For instance, the AFU & Urban Legends Archive (http://www.urbanlegends.com), a collection of yarns culled from Internet newsgroups, attempts to ascertain the veracity of such unkillable anecdotes as The Newlywed Game‘s ”That’d be the butt, Bob.”

In the end, the best way to suss out the facts on a website is simply to call up the people who own the primary Web address. Anyone setting up shop online within one of the major domains (.com, .org, .net, or .edu) has to provide contact information to the official InterNIC registry, and it’s a snap to go to the InterNIC page (http://www.internic.net), type in the domain name of the site you’re curious about (minus the www.), and come up with a phone number. Most sites are on the up-and-up, of course, but it pays to keep your BS detector on high: The Internet sometimes seems intent on literally proving the old proverb that ”a lie will go round the world while truth is pulling its boots on.” Or off, if you’re Mike and Diane.

Hotlink to The Web Guide at http://www.ew.com