E-Mail Chain Letter Hoaxes

The Internet community is constantly being bombarded with chain letters in the form of e-mail messages. They claim all manner of warnings and dire notices of doom and gloom for your computer systems or for some poor soul somewhere, all of which will be saved if you just send this message on to all of your friends. Enter the world of the Internet chain letter. In the years before computers, chain letters were common and were sent by U.S. mail and required a stamp. This limited the extent to which chain letters were passed on, because sending them involved a real, up front cost in time to type the letters and money for stamps. The fact that most chain letters asked you to send a dollar to the top ten people in the chain caused most people to ignore them.

Today, with the click of a button, a message can be forwarded to hundreds of people at no apparent cost to the sender. If each of the so-called good Samaritans sends the letter on to only ten other people (most send to huge mailing lists), the ninth resending results in a billion e-mail messages, thereby, clogging the network and interfering with the receiving of legitimate e-mail messages. Factor in the time lost reading and deleting all these messages and you see a real cost to organizations and individuals from these seemingly innocuous messages. Not only are these messages time consuming and costly, they may also be damaging to a person's or organization's reputation as in the case of the Jessica Mydek and the American Cancer Society chain letters.

Chain letters all have a similar pattern. From the older printed letters to the newer electronic kind, they all have three recognizable parts:

A hook.

A threat.

A request.

First, there is a hook, to catch your interest and get you to read the rest of the letter. Hooks used to be "Make Money Fast" or "Get Rich" or similar statements related to making money for little or no work. Electronic chain letters also use the "free money" type of hooks, but have added hooks like "Danger!" and "Virus Alert" or "A Little Girl Is Dying". These tie into our fear for the survival of our computers or into our sympathy for some poor unfortunate person.

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. However, others play on greed or sympathy to get you to pass the letter on. The threat often contains official or technical sounding language to get you to believe it is real.

Finally, the request. Some older chain letters ask you to mail a dollar to the top ten names on the letter and then pass it on. The electronic ones simply admonish you to "Distribute this letter to as many people as possible." 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.

Chain letters usually do not have the name and contact information of the original sender so it is impossible to check on its authenticity. Legitimate warnings and solicitations will always have complete contact information from the person sending the message and will often be signed with a cryptographic signature, such as PGP to assure its authenticity.

If you want more information on hoaxes and chain letters, there are plenty of sites that collect this info and give you plenty of reasons not to believe everything you read. Some of the addresses are:

About.com's Urban Legends and Folklore

Snopes.com's Urban Legends Reference Pages

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