Top Five Signs That an E-mail is a Hoax
The next time that you receive an alarming e-mail calling you to action, look for one or more of these five telltale characteristics before even thinking about sending it along to anybody else.
The e-mail will have a great sense of urgency! You’ll usually see a lot of exclamation points and capitalization. The subject line will typically be something like:
THIS IS NOT A JOKE!!!!!!
TELL ALL YOUR FRIENDS
There will always be a request that you share this “important information” by forwarding the message to everybody in your e-mail address book or to as many people as you possibly can. This is a surefire sign that the message is a hoax.
THIS ISN’T A HOAX
The body of the e-mail may contain some form of corroboration, such as a pseudoquote from an executive of a major corporation or government official. The message may include a sincere-sounding premise, such as this, for example: My neighbor, who works for Microsoft, just received this warning so I know it’s true. He asked me to pass this along to as many people as I can.
Sometimes the message will contain a link to Snopes to further confuse people. The references to Snopes are just red herrings, though, meant only to give a sense of legitimacy to the hoax. The author knows that lots of folks will believe it because they see it in print and won’t bother to really check it for themselves. Anyone actually bothering to check the story with Snopes would, of course, discover that it was not true. Hoax writers count on folks being too lazy to verify those stories before they hit the forward button.
It’s all a bunch of baloney. Don’t believe it for a second.
Watch for e-mails containing a subtle form of self-corroboration. Statements such as “This is serious!” or “This is not a hoax!” can be deceiving. Just because somebody says it’s not a hoax doesn’t make it so.
The e-mail text will predict dire consequences if you don’t act immediately. You are led to believe that a missing child will never be found unless the e-mail is forwarded immediately. It may infer that someone won’t die happy unless they receive a bazillion business cards. Or it may state that a virus will destroy your hard drive and cause green fuzzy things to grow in your refrigerator.
Look for a lot of >>>> marks in the left margin. These marks indicate that people suckered by the hoax have forwarded the message countless times before it has reached you.
In her book, Cyberliteracy, Laura Gurak identified three things that are common to all hoax and urban legend e-mail chain letters. They are the hook, the threat, and the request. To hook you in, a hoax will play on your sympathy, your greed, or your fears. It will threaten you with bad luck, play on your guilt, or label you a fool for not participating. And, of course, it will request that you forward the e-mail to all of your friends and family.
The hook catches your interest to make you read the whole e-mail. The hook may be a sad story about a missing or sick child, or about the latest computer virus. Once you’re hooked, the threat warns you about the terrible things that will happen if you don’t keep the chain going. The threat may be that someone will die if you don’t respond, or that your computer will suffer a melt-down from the latest virus. Last is the request. It will implore you to send the message to as many others as possible. It may even promise a small donation to a group with a legitimate-sounding name because they are able to track every forwarded e-mail (also a hoax).
Spot the Hoax
The following are actual hoax e-mails. Millions of people have forwarded the “Budweiser Frogs,” “Penny Brown” and “Virtual Card for You” hoaxes to millions of Internet users, keeping them in circulation for years. See how many of the five hoax signs you can spot! Look for the hook, threat and request.
>>>Subject: READ IMMEDIATELY AND PASS ON!
>>>Someone is sending out a very cute screensaver of the Budweiser
>>>Frogs. If you download it, you will lose everything! Your hard drive
>>>will crash and someone from the Internet will get your screen name
>>>DO NOT DOWNLOAD IT UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES!
>>>It just went into circulation yesterday. Please distribute this
>>>message. This is a new, very malicious virus and not many people
>>>know about it.
>>>This information was announced yesterday morning from Microsoft.
>>>Please share it with everyone that might access the Internet.
>>>Once again, pass this along to EVERYONE in your address book
>>>so that this may be stopped. AOL has said that this is a very
>>>dangerous virus and that there is NO remedy for it at this time.
>>>Subject: MISSING CHILD PICTURE
>>>I am asking you all, begging you to please, forward this email
>>>onto anyone and everyone you know, PLEASE. My 9 year old girl,
>>>Penny Brown, is missing.
>>>She has been missing for now two weeks.
>>>It is still not too late.
>>>Please help us.
>>>If anyone anywhere knows anything, sees anything, please contact
>>>me at firstname.lastname@example.org I am including a picture of her.
>>>All prayers are appreciated!! It only takes 2 seconds to forward
>>>this on, if it was your child, you would want all the help you
>>>Please. thank you for your kindness, hopefully you can help us.
>>>VIRUS WARNING TO ALL INTERNET USERS:
>>>A new virus has just been discovered that has been classified by
>>>Microsoft as the most destructive ever. This virus was discovered
>>>yesterday afternoon by McAfee. This virus simply destroys Sector
>>>Zero from the hard disk where vital information for its
>>>functioning are stored.
>>>This virus acts in the following manner: It sends itself
>>>automatically to all contacts on your list with the title: “A
>>>Card for You”.
>>>As soon as the supposed virtual card is opened the computer
>>>freezes so that the user has to reboot. When the ctrl+alt+del
>>>keys or the reset button are pressed, the virus destroys Sector
>>>Zero, thus permanently destroying the hard disk. Yesterday in
>>>just a few hours this virus caused panic in New York, according
>>>to news broadcast by CNN.
>>>This alert was received by an employee of Microsoft itself. So
>>>don’t open any mails with subject: “A Virtual Card for You.” As
>>>soon as you get the mail, delete it, even if you know the sender.
>>>Please forward this to everyone in your address book. I’m sure
>>>most people, like myself, would rather receive this notice 25
>>>times than not at all.
NOTE: It is possible that you may receive a virus hoax e-mail with an attached file.
Such file attachments should be treated with caution.
Thanks and Regards