NWA-PCUG Newsletter Article, June 2005
Current Hoaxes and Urban Legends
by Ira Wilsker
APCUG Director and Columnist, The Examiner, Beaumont TX
(click to email author)


Some of us find them cute, entertaining, exciting, and fun, while others of us find them embarrassing, irritating, and a waste of time. Many forward them believing that they are doing good, or warning of harm, or forward them because they came from an allegedly reliable source. A few are so convinced of their truth that I am explicitly requested to put them in this column, or announce them on my radio and TV show. What I am referring to are the hoaxes and urban legends currently circulating on the internet that many of us seem to love to forward to everyone in our email address books. Many of these hoaxes and urban legends have a grain of truth or logic in them, while many others are totally lacking any basis in fact, yet many of us still enjoy forwarding them without a second thought.

In order to avoid embarrassment I strongly recommend that everyone tempted to forward such emails should check out their validity prior to another mass send to all we know. There are several excellent websites that compile information on these emails, and a quick check can save us from the embarrassment of sending out a hoax, and preserve our personal credibility. If we find that the interesting email is indeed true, we should still consider not forwarding them to everyone, as many of our intended recipients may not find our interests to their likings, and may even be offended that we consumed their valuable bandwidth and time. Typically, when I receive one of these from an acquaintance, if I am not already familiar with it, I check it out; if it is true (a minority of the time), I may choose to selectively forward it only to those that I think may be interested in the topic, but I never send it to everyone in my address book. If it is false, I usually reply back to the sender that it is indeed false, and include a link documenting the falsehood. Some emailers are so humiliated that I caught them in an inaccuracy that they reply in anger back to me, despite the incontrovertible fact that it was they who had sent the bogus email.

To verify the authenticity or falsehoods of these oft forwarded emails, I use two primary, and several secondary resources. Primarily I use the excellent and comprehensive urban legends resource of Snopes, at http://www.snopes.com. Well organized in an easy to navigate menu format, along with a competent search engine makes Snopes an excellent choice to check out the validity of questionable emails.

My other primary resource for checking the legitimacy of potential hoax emails is http://urbanlegends.about.com. This site is frequently updated with the latest hoaxes in circulation, and can reliably document their validity.

A common topic of these questionable emails is virus warnings. For this reason, most of the major antivirus software publishers also compile lists of hoaxes, mostly virus related, on their websites. I utilize these sites as secondary resources. It is also notable that old hoaxes and virus warnings never seem to die out, and periodically reappear. One that has been documented to be in circulation for over six years, but is again currently making the rounds in mass emailings is the “It takes guts to say Jesus” virus hoax. This email, in several iterations, warns that according to CNN, AOL, McAfee, and other reputable resources, that there is an email circulating with a virus that can not be detected by contemporary antivirus software and that if you open the email, your computer will be effectively destroyed. Every one of the hoax and antivirus websites list this as a hoax, yet countless copies are being forwarded by well intentioned people trying to warn their acquaintances. Some of the variations even go on to state that while it may be false, it is so important that it is being forwarded anyway. Another similar email warning that does have some validity is the one that says “I've Got Your E-mail on My Account”. It goes on to warn that someone is using “your” email account to spread a virus, and I have received 10 copies of it, all with your email address and ISP in the header. The email then says, “I have copied all the mail text in the windows text-editor for you & zipped then. Make sure, that this mails (sic) don't come in my mail-box again.” Attached to this dire warning is a file, commonly named “your_text.zip”. If opened, the file will infest your computer with the Sober.N worm. If it infects your computer, Sober.N will terminate the antivirus and firewall software on your computer, rendering it vulnerable to further attack, and then forwarding itself to everyone in your address book! This Sober.N warning is the exception to the rule that most warnings of this type are bogus.

Another dire warning, which I am receiving multiple copies of, is the warning that a directory of cell phone numbers is being compiled to enable telemarketers to call us on our cell phones, consuming our valuable supply of limited minutes. This hoax, which is now circulating for the second time, is listed by several sites as one of the top hoaxes in circulation. The grain of truth in this is that most cell phone carriers are instituting a “411”directory service of cell phone numbers, this list will emphatically not be for sale to telemarketers.

To see the latest hoaxes in circulation, as well as the ones in widest distribution, check out the hoax and urban legend websites, or the website of your favorite antivirus software. You may find some of the hoaxes actually quite entertaining, and wonder how intelligent people could fall for such silly emails.

There is no restriction against any non-profit group using this article as long as it is kept in context with proper credit given the author. The Editorial Committee of the Association of Personal Computer User Groups (APCUG), an international organization of which this group is a member, brings this article to you.

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