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Hoaxes in Cyberspace

Veena Thomas

A few days ago I was very excited to hear the familiar sound of the Eudora mail chime. I got up to see who sent the incoming message.

The e-mail was from a friend of mine notorious for passing along any e-mail forward in her path. Surprise, surprise -- this too was a forward. This one warned me of impending doom if I were to open an “apparently harmless Budweiser screensaver. Once opened, you will lose everything on your PC. Your hard disk will be completely destroyed and the person who sent you the message will have access to your name and password via the Internet.”

Sounds pretty ominous. I seem to receive this kind of message a lot, and by now I thought I had become immune to them. I’ve been warned so many times that they are almost all hoaxes and not to pass them on. Usually I just delete them and forget about them.

But for some reason this one really upset me. Maybe I had been particularly looking forward to real e-mail from someone, or maybe I had just seen too many of these virus warning forwards. I was so tired of all these junk forwards I had been getting.

Just to be sure that this e-mail wasn’t among the maybe one percent of legitimate virus warnings, I decided to do some research. A few clicks later, I reached the website of Data Fellows <http://www.datafellows.fi>, a Finnish company that hails itself as “the industry standard information source for new virus hoaxes and false alerts.” It provides a comprehensive list of virus hoaxes, along with actual virus alerts. “Hoax warnings are typically scare alerts started by malicious people -- and passed on by innocent users who think they are helping the community by spreading the warning. Do not forward hoax messages,” the site warns.

I looked through the compilation of the latest virus hoaxes in search of the Budweiser screensaver one. Sure enough, I saw the exact e-mail forward that I had received, word for word, with the message that it was a hoax and should not be passed on. I wasn’t surprised. My anger grew as I saw the tremendous number of hoaxes listed on the website. Several of them I had seen before. I can’t even remember how many times I received the one “from Microsoft,” saying they were testing out some e-mail tracking system and that I would supposedly receive money proportional to the number of people to which I forwarded the message. The one “from Disney” promised a free vacation to Walt Disney World if I forwarded the message. One especially popular one among my friends, “from the GAP,” said that if I passed on the message, I would receive a pair of cargo pants, and for every person those people forwarded it to, I would receive a fisherman’s hat, and so on. Apparently this would culminate in my receiving the entire warehouse of the GAP via UPS. This forward was followed by others “from Old Navy” and “from Abercrombie and Fitch” who also “wanted to get in on the action” with similar offers. The website listed all of these as hoaxes.

Gullible people pass these forwards on, in hopes of quick rewards for doing virtually nothing. Well-meaning but uninformed people pass on virus hoaxes trying to inform others. In reality, they are only perpetrating a myth and clogging others’ mailboxes.

By this point I was completely fed up and I decided to take action. I hit ‘reply to all’ and informed my friend -- and everyone else to which she had forwarded the ‘virus alert’ -- that it was a hoax. I included the Data Fellows virus hoax page <http://www.datafellows.fi/virus-info/hoax> and wrote, “Refuse to send on hoaxes! It only takes a minute to look it up on the website and to prevent hoaxes from spiraling out of control.” I added the address showing documentation of this particular hoax, and I sent it off.

My friend e-mailed me back, asking me if I was sure it was a hoax, because, she said, “I have heard about this very dangerous virus from many people.” Such is the danger of the Internet. Never before could rumors travel so fast and to so many people. Just because you hear about something from more than one person doesn’t make it true, and hearing something repeatedly doesn’t make it gospel. Hoaxes and useless forwards will die off if we refuse to perpetrate them.

Next time you receive a forward -- whether it be a virus alert, a scheme to get free goods, or a ‘warning’ against flashing your headlights at someone driving without them, do a little research. About 99 percent of these forwards are fictional ‘urban legends.’ There are many websites documenting these hoaxes and legends. Most likely you will find that the warning is nonsense. Before deleting the e-mail, inform the person who sent it to you that it is a hoax, and ask him or her to do research before passing along such alerts. By using some common sense and informing others of these hoaxes, we can help curtail the onslaught of junk mail. Refuse to be a participant -- make sure that junk mail stops with you.