High Tech Hypochondria

Although it made me squint at my monitor screen for a brief moment, I knew it was impossible: I could earn $1,000 if I forwarded this message to 100 of my friends to be participants of a Microsoft "email tracking" application? My hunch was correct. A few minutes of research on a trusted web site exposed the completely bogus offer. It was likely created by some loser in desperate need of a life away from the keyboard. The victim that forwarded the message to me was a friend of mine who, I'm sure, had already mentally spent the easy grand he'd earn by sending the message to me. "Poor fool," I mumbled, before clicking "delete".

On another day I received an email from a different friend begging me not to install a Budweiser-Frogs screen saver that was circulating around the Internet. In 1998 the Bud-Frogs were all the rage. They were featured in expensive TV commercials, on T-shirts and even in print ads. A warning about a Bud Frogs screen saver with a virus seemed to be the perfect tool for some cyber fear-monger. "It will crash your computer if you open it because THE BUD FROGS HAVE A VIRUS!" my friend screamed in all caps. Three mouse-clicks and a web page later I was able to confirm this well-planned piece of fiction to be a hoax as well.

Has a "friend" ever sent you an emergency email warning of your computer's impending doom because of an email virus you might get? Or has a coworker sent an email chain letter that will bring easy money for participation in something you know he/she couldn't possibly understand? I get them all the time and I'm baffled as to how these people can, without a second thought, send me email virus warnings and quick-money hoaxes that are completely unsubstantiated. Why are people so eager to send warnings that can cause sheer horror, or, at best, a big waste of time?

Computer virus experts refer to this phenomenon as "False Authority Syndrome". The term describes the mental condition of any overzealous, non-expert friend that wants to be your computer's savior and thereby appear "cool" to you by sending a message notifying you of your sudden danger.

Let's define a word that seems to be at the crux of this very bizarre tendency:

Ultracrepidarian: (n., adj.) a person who gives opinions beyond his or her scope of knowledge.

Are you nodding your head because you know about a million people who should have this title included on their business cards? Me too.

Let's dig into the thought process of an ultracrepidarian for a moment. "Hmm, I just got this scary email warning from Joe Blow about this terrible virus that is going around. I wonder if my friends know about this. I could easily send this to everyone I know and come out smelling sweet if they haven't already heard about it. Should I forward it to my entire address book? Most of my friends don't understand computers enough to dispute this warning since it includes some technical jargon they won't understand. They'll think I'm smart --a couple of them have already mentioned how good they think I am on the computer. If I'm the first to warn everyone they will see me as an expert -which I absolutely love. The warning will also remind them that I'm on the cutting edge of technology and I really know what's going on out there. Sure, they might experience a few moments of sheer terror but, hey, the remedy is included with the message so they'll be fine if they read the whole thing. If everyone believes my warning and nothing happens, I seem like the rescuer and they'll thank me! Quick, send it! If they hear it from someone else first I'll lose all the credit for discovering this nasty virus and saving them from certain computer destruction! [Clicks Send] Ahh, who knew cyber-heroism was so easy?"

The problem is that too often, people perceive as an authority, anyone seeming to know a tad more about computer technology than them. This misperception is dangerous and can be costly. Some people accept anything they hear from someone they know as gospel truth. Others are more careful and seek out the advice of their computer technician. Unfortunately, many computer technicians may be only slightly more knowledgeable about virus behavior and diagnosis. I've seen computer technicians misdiagnose hardware failure as a virus infection. This resulted in their client paying much more money than necessary.

The best course of action is to seek out a true expert for advice. The average nurse or family practitioner could probably explain why a person is in a coma but would likely refer any such patient to a neurologist for a treatment rather than depending on their own knowledge. Likewise, a friend with computer experience or even a computer technician may be able to validate or dismiss a virus threat for you, but I believe it's best to use a true authority -especially considering the often priceless value of the data on our computers and because the expert advice can be found FREE (yippee) on the web if you know where to look.

So what do we do when we get scary virus-warning emails from friends? Try the following steps:

1. Don't panic. If you are reading the email message then obviously your computer hasn't succumbed to viral doom. Panic can cause actions that are costly.

2. Consider the sender. Who sent you the warning and what does he/she know? If you trust the person his/her word may be enough for you. But if you are smart continue to number 3.

3. See if it checks out with your own sources. I check two web sites whenever any of my well-meaning friends send me an email that has potential to be a "Chicken Little" message:

http://hoaxbusters.ciac.org

4. This is also a great time to remind yourself to backup your data, never to open any suspicious email attachments, and to verify that you computer has current antivirus software with updated virus definition files installed.

I'm not suggesting that viruses should be taken lightly nor am I saying it's safe to assume that every virus warning from a friend is bogus. The important thing to remember is that each of us has the ability to quickly verify any threat on our own with some of the world's best experts in a matter of seconds before reacting or adding to any hysteria. The caution you use in giving credence to someone's advice is at least as important caution you should use in acting on that advice.

Ross Greenberg became wealthy and famous as a pioneer of PC antivirus software. He semi-retired in his mid-30's and continues to lecture on computer antivirus topics. Typically he wraps up a presentation by saying "I'd still be slaving away at a desk for another 25 years if people backed up [their computer data] and kept a cool head."

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