Chicken Littles

"I can't believe someone revived this one," I whined. A new attempt at a sick, old hoax was sitting in my Inbox, again, nine years later.

I first heard of Jessica Mydek back in 1997 when an email explained that she was at death's door, suffering from terminal brain cancer. Her description yanked my heart into my throat from a rush of sympathy for little Jessica. The message claimed that the American Cancer Society would donate three cents each time the message was forwarded. This hoax was soon crushed (for good, I thought) when the American Cancer Society stated that no fundraising efforts were being made using chain letters of any kind.

Other sympathy hoaxes have reappeared in new, more elaborate forms over the years -some going as far as to include photos of sick children. Unfortunately, some people have found these chain emails effective for gaining a thrill or profit by exploiting the trust and goodness of people.

In the context of technology, the term "social engineering" generally refers to psychological manipulation of people to obtain information from them. By that definition, email hoaxes are a form of social engineering because they exploit sympathy or greed of people to trick them into sharing information via email.

There is some debate over whether email chain letters are simply adolescent pranks, or a practical tool used by spammers to harvest the many email addresses that you can see crammed at the top of the forwarded messages. Extracting these email addresses is relatively easy and can be accomplished with a tool as simple as an MS Word macro. This may not be the most sophisticated method of email harvesting for spammers, but the friend-to-friend forwarding keeps the message tucked safely beneath spam filters that "allow" all messages from friends. So it is possible for hoax emails to be a practical tool not only used for "kicks."

So what if you receive an email promising money if you do respond or warning you of the death of a child if you do not? My first step when I get any email that looks "hoaxish" is to check it at www.hoaxbusters.org. It takes literally 15 seconds or less to pull up their web page, search a keyword and discredit the hoax. Hoaxbusters have compiled a vast encyclopedia of constantly updated Internet hoaxes and they do a great job of debunking them.

Part of the education Hoaxbusters offers on their site includes five telltale signs that an email is a hoax:

1) Urgency - Use of capital letters, and many exclamation points in the subject

2) Tell all your friends - This line in at the end of any message I receive strips it of all credibility. Legitimate warnings do not include this request.

3) This isn't a hoax - The body of the message will claim credibility by quoting an expert or a trusted friend who "knows about these things."

4) Direct Consequences - Act now or else dire consequences will follow OR you'll miss out big time.

5) History - Is the message filled with >>>> marks? These indicate that people suckered by the hoax have forwarded the message countless times.

If you get a message that says a child is dying far away and can be saved only if you spam enough of your friends with the same message, be suspicious. If a message says anything about Bill Gates giving away money for tracking email, (Incidentally, Bill Gates referred to this hoax as "hooey") or that a prince from another country needs you to help handle thousands of inheritance dollars, or a huge prize that is triggered by a certain number of email forwards, then stop the madness! Go to hoaxbusters.org, verify the hoax, and stop it in its tracks.

Now HURRY!!!!! Send this article to everyone in your address book! The 3,146th person to get this message might win a prize (maybe). My friend who knows computers told me this is for real. ACT NOW!!! A sick child somewhere might be disappointed that you were the one who didn't respond.

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