For the past 30 years, business leaders, former government officials and scientists have been secretly working on a plan to save humanity from destruction when the Earth collides with another planet on 21 December 2012.
They have set up a covert Institute for Human Continuity which has now agreed to go public and warn the world that there is a 94 per cent probability of "cataclysmic forces" destroying our planet in three years' time.
Its website offers survival kits and encourages people to sign up for a lottery to decide who will be among the lucky few chosen to be saved.
You are probably thinking that this is an elaborate hoax – you would be right. But hundreds of people have apparently been taken in by the nonsense put out by Sony Pictures as part of a "viral marketing" campaign for its film 2012, set for release next month.
Nasa is taking the issue so seriously that an astronomer at the agency has spoken out to condemn the use of the hoax website, which claims the world is going to end in 2012.
David Morrison said he had received more than 1,000 enquiries from members of the public who were concerned that Nasa scientists were involved in a conspiracy to deny that they were tracking the movements of Nibiru, a hitherto undiscovered planet on a collision course with Earth.
Dr Morrison, a distinguished scientist at Nasa's Astrobiology Institute, said that the marketing behind the film, distributed by Columbia Pictures, was making some people so scared that he feared they could harm themselves.
"They've created a completely fake scientific website. It looks very slick. It talks about this organisation having existed for 30 years and it consists of international scientists and business people and government officials having concluded that there is a 94 per cent chance of the Earth being destroyed in 2012 – and it's all made up, it's pure fiction. But obviously some people are treating it seriously," Dr Morrison told The Independent.
"I've even had cases of teenagers writing to me saying they are contemplating suicide because they don't want to see the world end. I think when you lie on the internet and scare children in order to make a buck, that is ethically wrong," he said.
There is nothing on the website instituteforhumancontinuity.org to indicate it is a hoax. It states that scientists are tracking a "planet X" on the fringes of the Solar System and mixes real scientific phenomena with complete fiction, such as a simulation of planet X's near-Earth trajectory.
The website urges people to sign up to a lottery guaranteeing every person of the planet an equal chance of survival in 2012 with the offer of a place in one of the Institute for Human Continuity's "safe havens". Only a small Sony Pictures copyright notice at the bottom of the screen and a link to the film's own website give any hint that this is a purely fictional website.
Dr Morrison said the idea of a mystery planet called Nibiru dates back 30 years to fictional books about supposed predictions of ancient Summerian astrologers. It was taken up by others linking a 2012 planetary collision with the end of the Mayan calender. Interest in the idea has resurfaced in the lead-up to the film's release, Dr Morrison said. "It is too bad, but there is no law against lying on the internet or anywhere else except in a court of law."
Vikki Luya, Sony's publicity director, said: "It is very clear that this site is connected to a fictional movie. This can readily be seen in the logos on the site, including the Sony Pictures Digital copyright line and the reference to the '2012 Movie Experience'. It is also evident in the user-generated videos, as well as the numerous online references to this marketing campaign."