Justin Bieber, Taylor Lautner, and George Clooney are among the stars who have been victims of internet death hoaxes

First it was Justin Bieber shot in the head. Apparently, the angel-faced 15-year-old singer perished in an altercation worthy of a 50 Cent song?by drawing a .25-caliber pistol on a bouncer at a Manhattan nightclub. A cop responded by pulling the trigger on the pop star first.

A week later, it was Twilight star Taylor Lautner going before his time, the 17-year-old heartthrob doomed in a baroque adventure involving strippers and cocaine. A detailed account of the incident, rife with medical terms (”cardiac arrhythmia”) and legalese (”toxicology reports”) helped seal his fate.

The boys’ official cause of (faux) death? Internet celebrity death hoax.

Online rumormongers are sending stars to their premature demise at an alarming rate lately, turning two age-old human obsession — death and fame — into their own ultramodern form of entertainment. Bieber and Lautner are the most recent victims, and their ”deaths” came with elaborate scenarios perpetuated by message boards, YouTube video tributes, fake screen shots made to look like real news sources, and anonymous postings on legitimate hubs like CNN’s iReport.com (which subsequently pulled the Bieber story). And in the past six months, at least a dozen celebrities have pretend-passed in fantastically fabricated stories, including George Clooney, Natalie Portman, Miley Cyrus, and Zach Braff, plus Jaclyn Smith, who suffered a particularly gruesome suicide rumor.

You can’t really blame concerned fans for taking these hoaxes seriously, sending phrases like ”Justin Bieber dead” to the top of Google’s most-searched terms. After all, the grim reaper has cut quite the swath across Hollywood lately, starting with the deaths of Michael Jackson and Farrah Fawcett on June 25 and continuing unchecked until late last year with the passing of actress Brittany Murphy on Dec. 20. ”Just hearing about celebrities dying makes it seem more probable,” says Nicholas DiFonzo, author of The Watercooler Effect and a psychology professor at Rochester Institute of Technology. ”So [the rumors] tend to occur in an epidemic-like fashion.”

False celebrity death reports are nothing new. It was more than a century ago that Mark Twain famously said to a journalist from a New York paper, ”The report of my death was an exaggeration.” Since then, Frank Sinatra, Al Jolson, and Errol Flynn died via rumor years before they died in fact. In the mid-1950s, the Mickey Mouse Club had to produce and mail a postcard picturing every Mouseketeer to disprove that Annette Funicello and Co. had perished in a bus accident while on tour. The Beatles spent years refuting the 1960s conspiracy theory that ”Paul Is Dead.” (He is still not.) And Henry Winkler had to deny his own death at the height of his Happy Days fame in the mid-’70s (the story did not involve a shark and waterskis). ”I don’t know where it came from,” he tells EW. ”It seems to happen to whoever is very famous at the moment. It is part of the tradition of Hollywood.”

Today, though, it seems to happen every week or so, thanks to an odd confluence of events: those legitimate high-profile deaths plus the rise of Twitter, a glut of gossip sites, and the increasing savvy of Internet users. The fauxbituaries began in earnest last summer when Jeff Goldblum ”perished” in a fall off a New Zealand cliff. Harrison Ford then disappeared in a yacht on the French Riviera. Clooney vanished in a private jet. Portman, um, perished in a fall off a New Zealand cliff. (That’s one killer cliff, no?) The similarities soon tipped off sharp readers to all of these stories’ source: FakeAWish.com, which invites users to type in a celebrity name, then automatically generates an official-looking faux death report, complete with specific time, date, and cause, and a handy post-to-Twitter function. (For those paying close attention, there’s also a disclaimer at the bottom of the page specifying that it’s ”not factual.”)

The eight-year-old site began as a way for jokesters to produce faux news stories about friends, says its creator, Rich Hoover, who lives in Atlanta. But its traffic numbers spiked as users started plugging in famous names instead. Goldblum’s cliff dive even inspired an entire segment on The Colbert Report, featuring the actor eulogizing himself. ”That was a really proud moment for me,” Hoover says. ”I’ve got this guy on there talking about something I typed with my own hands, and it was a twisted sense of satisfaction.” For the record, Hoover is planning to retire the cliff and yacht stories soon because they’ve gotten so much play, but there was solid reasoning behind their creation: ”Non-U.S.-based locations are best for accidents because there are too many paparazzi on every street corner here. If you have some cliffs in New Zealand, it’s harder to disprove. You can’t just call a goat farmer to validate it.”

While Hoover says anyone who’s upset with his outlandish obituaries ”takes themselves far too seriously,” the guy who’s responsible for Scrubs star Zach Braff’s fake suicide by overdose in October feels bad that his gag got so out of hand. Chris Laganella, a freshman at Florida’s Full Sail University, says he fabricated a CNN page reporting Braff’s ”death” in 2007 as a practical joke on some fellow Scrubs fans. But while Laganella admitted his ruse to his friends, he didn’t remove it from his personal website. Then he noticed traffic flooding his URL last fall — and even saw his ”announcement” pop up on Twitter. Next thing he knew, he was name-dropped in Braff’s real Facebook response video, earning the actor’s ”first-ever ‘Douche of the Day’ award for making my mom upset.” Like Hoover, Laganella found the initial blush of Internet power a little intoxicating, but soon remorse set in. ”I took it down,” the 18-year-old film major says. ”It was a combination of having people send me hate mail on Facebook, Zach Braff calling me names, and CNN threatening to sue me.”

Recent Internet grim reapers appear to have learned a lesson of sorts from Laganella, and are becoming stealthier and savvier. Bieber’s nightclub showdown first appeared on CNN’s iReport site, which allows citizen journalists to post content at will. So the site — which prides itself on having brought the world the first cell phone videos of the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings — also occasionally plays host to a wildly inaccurate false death report. The problem? It permits anonymous online gossips to link to what appears to be a credible news source for a few hours before CNN editors can vet the facts. (”We’ve had very little of that,” spokeswoman Jennifer Martin says. ”The benefit far outweighs what a few of these mischief makers are doing.”)

Lack of legitimate links doesn’t seem to stop the most determined rumor spreaders anyway. Lautner’s ridiculous obituary took off despite the dearth of fake reports. The apparent source seemed to be anonymous message boarders looking ”to piss off fangirls” by providing the detailed account of a cocaine overdose that others then copied and pasted onto social networks.

What seems like it’s all in good fun, though, gets serious once word reaches the ”dead” celebrities’ publicity machines. ”Their family may not know they’re not dead,” says Stan Rosenfield, a veteran publicist who’s handled the non-deaths of Clooney, Will Smith, and John Goodman. ”Therein lies the rub.” Adds Winkler, ”My mother called me in a panic. Someone had called my parents because, bless their hearts, at the time their phone number was listed.”

The Internet age, however, does have one upside: Killing a death rumor is as easy as starting one. (No postcards needed!) Once celebs hear they’ve been offed, they usually take to their official website, Facebook page, or Twitter account to declare their health. Twitter has itself assassinated a few famous names (Britney Spears’ and Ellen DeGeneres’ own feeds announced their deaths last year thanks to hackers’ handiwork), but it disseminates good news just as quickly. As Bieber tweeted Jan. 5: ”It feels so good to be alive. Haha.”

One more reason for Bieber and Lautner to be laughing? Reports of their deaths, though greatly exaggerated, also mark a certain level of stardom. ”You’re nobody until you’ve had a phony death report,” Rosenfield says. ”In fact, if you haven’t had a death report, you’re doing something wrong.”

Fake celebrity deaths: How they spread

When pop star Justin Bieber was pronounced dead in a far-fetched Internet rumor, the news spread despite the implausible report involving a nightclub shoot-out. Here’s how.

Story headlined ”Justin Bieber Dead at 15” posted on CNN’s iReport, which allows users to upload their own stories instantly.

The ”news” that he died in a gunfight is copied and pasted on message boards, with users insisting, ”I saw it on CNN.”

CNN editors pull the original text on Dec. 30, but rumors spread in the days following, reaching critical mass on Jan. 4.

Bieber’s daylong absence from Twitter — an anomaly for the frequent tweeter — whips fans into a worried frenzy.

At last, Bieber takes a few minutes out of his Bahamas vacation to assure followers that ”it feels so good to be alive.”

The Day I Learned I Died…

”My assistant called me and said there was this horrible story about me — suicide. You know it’s not true, but you think, ‘I don’t even want to hear that.’ The Internet is just a license to say what you want without checking sources. A lot of people said they didn’t believe [the rumor], but it’s angering to think we have to send out e-mails telling people not to worry — I’m not dead. That’s sad to me.” —Jaclyn Smith