NWA-PCUG Newsletter Article, October 2004
Hoaxes, Chain Letters, Sob Stories
Check Them Out, Don't Forward Email Hoaxes
Check 'em Out, Don't Forward

by Gabe Goldberg,
APCUG Advisor, Region 2;
columnist for AARP’s Computer and Technology Web site

Spam and malware -- nasty virus, worm, spyware, and such software -- turn many peoples' email inboxes into bloated wastelands. Anti-virus and anti-spyware tools help prune the weeds. But another hazard lurks as innocent-seeming email: hoaxes, chain letters, and sob stories, all urgently demanding that you "Forward this to everyone you know, right now!".

Many of them come from well-meaning friends, relatives, and colleagues. Others come from legitimate mailing lists you've subscribed to, and some surely come as spam. They often have a common structure: they tell a plausible story, cite seemingly authentic sources, contain specific details, offer a compelling reward or threaten something scary, and issue a call to action.

Before following the instructions, remember that something isn't true just because it's on the Internet, whether as as email or a Web page article. It was said early-on that the Internet makes everyone a publisher. While that can be true, it doesn't mean that everything published is true or well-intended.

I've seen earnest warnings posted to work-topic mailing lists, such as a story about a new method of carjacking becoming common at gas stations. A five-second Google search on carjacking hoax "gas station" revealed dozens of links such as http://hoaxbusters.ciac.org/HBScareChains.shtml which show the warning to be a hoax. A similar bogus post cautioned not to blink headlights at cars driving with their headlights off at night, lest one become a target for gang violence. Searching on headlights "gang initiation" revealed sites including http://www.snopes.com/horrors/madmen/lightout.asp. Another type of hoax masquerades as virus alerts, suggesting searching for a specific file on your PC, warning that its presence indicates infection with the virus, and suggesting deleting the file. No surprise, a simple search on the given filename combined with the word "hoax" reveals the warning's hoaxish nature. A funny parody of such warnings equates following the instructions with banging oneself in the head with a hammer, then sending hammers to everyone you know, telling them to bang themselves in the head. The full text is at http://www.urbanlegends.com/ and http://www.snopes.com/. A wonderful reference for all-things-virus-related is http://www.vmyths.com/; its False Authority Syndrome writeup explains how misinformation spreads and why it's important to consider the qualifications of people and organizations making assertions.

Another type of "forward me now" email is sob stories. The granddaddy of Internet tear jerkers is Craig Shergold. A real boy (eight years old in 1989) had a real brain tumor. People close to Craig used a paper chain letter to solicit get well cards to cheer him up and earn listing in the Guiness Book of Records. They succeeded: the million cards received in less than a year took the record. After 30 million, a philanthropist heard of Craig and paid for surgery. Craig has recovered; he and his family have pleaded for an end to cards. But with Internet-powered networking and new people constantly discovering this "worthy cause" and forwarding appeals to everyone they know, the torrent is unending. The whole story is at http://urbanlegends.about.com/library/weekly/aa102997.htm.

Then there are chain letters -- what can I say? Unless you've signed up for the "chain letter of the day" club, you're probably not happy to see them. Especially armed with dire threats or implausible promises, chain letters are an imposition on the recipient. Perhaps once a novelty, especially if they carried interesting paper letterheads and postmarks, with creative handwritten endorsements, emailed chain letters are simply a modern-day irritant. Just don't do it!

Before forwarding anything to anyone, especially to a mailing list or "everyone you know", consider whether your potential addressees really want to receive it. If it's a hoax, chain letter, or sob story, they probably don't. A better course of action is to quietly discard sob stories and chain letters, and to research hoaxes and send debunking information back to the sender.

This article appeared originally on AARP's Computers and Technology Web site, . (c) AARP 2004. Permission is granted for reprinting and distribution by non-profit organizations with text reproduced unchanged and this paragraph included. Visit for more articles; visit for a free discussion forum covering diverse computers and technology topics.

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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