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Understand hoaxes

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.

Recognize hoaxes

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 example–SULFNBK.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 Web site?

Valid warnings will refer you to the web site of a well-known security organization (such as 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 example–FCC ban against religious broadcasting

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 example–Sodium 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 Hoax–A 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 example–Poison 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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