Email hoaxes are messages that contain information
that is mostly, if not completely, untrue. Unlike spam, they are
forwarded to us by friends and family and can be quite annoying.
This is where the real problem lies.
We tend to believe what we read, especially if friends
and family send it to us. It is in our nature to want to help others,
so we feel good when we pass on what seems like useful information.
It is hard to say no to these messages when you first see them,
though after a few thousand have passed through your mailbox you
(hopefully) delete them without even looking.
Probably the first thing you should notice about a
warning is the request to "send this to everyone you know"
or some variant of that statement. This should raise a red flag
that the warning is probably a hoax.
Know common types of hoaxes
Some are sympathy hoaxes that ask you to forward the
message to others to help or comfort someone. Some are urban legends
that contain frightening stories. Some are written to provoke outrage
such as one that warns of pending legislation allowing the Post
Office to charge 5 cents for every email sent.
Look for hoax components
Chain letters and most hoax messages all have a similar
pattern. There are generally three parts to a hoax: the Hook, the
Threat, and the Request.
The Hook is to catch your interest and get
you to read the rest of the letter. The hook is usually found in
the subject. It might be "Free Gift Certificates", "Dangerous
New Virus", or simply "IMPORTANT: Please Read".
The Threat is the specific hoax information.
When you are hooked, you read on to the threat. Most threats used
warn you about the terrible things that will happen if you do not
maintain the chain. The threat is written to provoke an emotional
reaction like fear, anger, sympathy, or greed, in order to make
us more likely to act on the request
The Request is what the email asks you to do.
Some requests ask you to mail a dollar to the top ten names on the
letter and then pass it on. They never mention clogging the Internet
or the fact that the message is a fake, they only want you to pass
it on to others.
Learn from your mistakes
Following are a few examples of specific hoaxes that
make the rounds on the Internet from time to time. The reason hoaxes
are a problem is because so many pass them on.
Virus Hoax exampleSULFNBK.EXE
This email claims that you may already have a virus.
It tells you to look for a file on your computer called SULFNBK.EXE,
and even tells you where to find it. You are told to delete the
file if you find it because it is supposedly a terrible virus that
will wipe out all other files on your hard drive on a certain date.
Many people were fooled by this hoax. They dutifully followed the
instructions, found the file, and then deleted it. In an attempt
to protect their friends, they also forwarded the message to everyone
they knew (as the email requested). Unfortunately, the file SULFNBK.EXE
is a normal component of the Windows operating system used to backup
and restore long filenames, and finding it on your PC does not mean
that it is a virus. A special note on Virus Hoaxes: We do not want
our customers to ignore a valid virus warning from us or another
reliable source. Here are some ways to determine if a virus warning
is valid or a hoax:
- What is the source of the email? If it came from
your best friend's Aunt Bertha, who received it from her daughter,
who got it from her husband's tennis pro's mechanic, who supposedly
got it from a security expert at IBM, then it is probably a hoax.
- Does the warning tell you to forward the message
to everyone you know? A valid virus warning will not ask you to
forward the message to others, since this is a known method for
spreading virus hoaxes.
- Does the warning refer you to a known security
Valid warnings will refer you to the web site of a
well-known security organization (such as cert.org) or an anti-virus
company (such as McAfee or Symantic). The Web site referenced should
contain specific information about the virus in question.
Religious Hoax exampleFCC ban against religious
Madalyn Murray O'Hair was a well-known atheist who
was instrumental in banning prayer from schools. This hoax claims
that she has begun petitioning the FCC for a ban on religious broadcasting.
The email sounds like it might be true, and even references a petition
number. It requests that you send a letter to the FCC objecting
to the ban and forward the message to all of your friends. Ms. O'Hair
has been missing and presumed dead since 1995. The bill in question
does not exist, and the FCC has had to deal with millions of letters
from concerned citizens in the years since the hoax first surfaced.
Health Hoax exampleSodium lauryl sulfate
Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) is a substance commonly
found in shampoo and toothpaste. This hoax says that this chemical
poses a significant cancer risk to users of those products. It suggests
that you check your shampoo bottles and toothpaste, and requests
that you forward the email to everyone you know. While it is true
that SLS is an ingredient in quite a few shampoos and toothpastes
(it helps produce foam), it has not been found to cause cancer.
Sympathy HoaxA little girl is dying
This hoax is about a dying girl whose last wish is
to tell the world to live life to the fullest. You are requested
to forward a copy of the email to everyone you know to help achieve
that goal, plus you are told that the American Cancer Society will
donate 3 cents toward her treatment for every forwarded email. There
is no little girl, no such program at the American Cancer Society,
and no way for them to count the number of forwarded emails even
if they wanted to contribute in such a way.
Crime Warning Hoax examplePoison perfume
This hoax surfaced just after September 11, 2001,
and tells of seven women that have supposedly died from sniffing
perfume samples they received in the mail. It also claims that the
government is keeping the deaths under wraps so as not to panic
the public. The hoax recommends throwing away any free samples of
lotions, perfumes, and even diapers received through the mail. There
have been no such deaths reported. The government has certainly
not been reluctant to give out security information, issuing frequent
warnings to keep the public alert since 9/11. Even if the government
wanted to keep information like this from the public, it would be
all but impossible if seven women had actually died in such a way.
There are many hoaxes similar to these, and once you
see a few, you get pretty good at recognizing them.
Check to see if an email is a hoax
If you get an email that you think is a hoax, there
are Web sites like Snopes or Hoaxbusters where you can search for
the subject or threat. If you do find a hoax, send the hoax back
to the person that sent it to you and make them aware of the hoax.
The more people are aware of hoaxes the fewer we will receive.
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