Internet hoaxes and fraudulent chain letters are no laughing matter. These deceptive emails arrive in the inboxes of thousands of people every day, making all kinds of claims for everything from getting rich quickly to saving a dying child. Email hoaxes will offer stories and claims of various alerts that are actually scams that could harm a computer. Chain letters are emails that encourage people to forward the email to others; sometimes this involves the use of a feel-good story or alternatively, a threat to the person who does not comply.
It is unclear why people create Internet hoaxes and chain letters in emails. Most people are not able to generate any money from those who read the email or forward it. The intent appears to be malicious in that those who respond to such emails become the victims of a cruel joke. The hoax or chain letter may also contain viruses and malware that will seriously harm a computer.
Internet hoaxes can contain viruses and malware: software that can infiltrate computer systems and cause damage. Removal of computer viruses, trojans, and malware is costly, requiring the use of specific programs or specialized companies that must expel it. Sometimes the virus has damaged a computer beyond repair, resulting in expensive losses of software and documents. There are times when an Internet hoax will claim to be guiding citizens against dangerous malware, with messages such as “do not open a certain email or it will infect your computer!” These messages are what they intend to be: a hoax. Not opening unwarranted emails and reporting them to authorities can protect against these potential scams and viruses.
What is an Internet Hoax/Chain Letter
An Internet hoax is a story or urban legend that circulates through the Internet, usually via email. These stories make false claims or attempt to get readers to believe that something is happening when it is not. Hoaxes play on people’s feelings or desires, for instance, circulating emails that claim to show pictures of unrealistic events. Hoaxes may or may not contain malicious software that can harm a computer if an email is opened or if files are downloaded. It is unclear why people create hoaxes and chain emails, except for the reason to harm others.
Chain letters are emails that tell stories with pictures or images. Many chain letters also appeal to the feelings of those reading it. They may speak of positive feelings with affirming stories, or they may contain threatening information. These emails request that the reader forward the email to a certain number or people and then give an ultimatum. As an example, chain letter emails could state, “you are a blessing. Forward this to ten other people that you know are blessings to you, or you will not receive good luck today.” Frequently, chain letter emails are much more threatening than this, telling people they will lose money or an account with a specific company.
History of Hoaxes
Internet hoaxes have been around as long as the Internet has been in use. One of the earliest hoaxes was created in 1984, during a time when most people did not have home computers. The hoax was circulated on Usenet, an early Internet messaging and discussion system. The joke claimed that the Soviet Union was planning to join Usenet and appeared as a message from Konstantin Chernenko. The story was upsetting at the time, due to post-Cold War conditions.
There have been many hoaxes that have circulated for years through the Internet. These stories evolve over time, and people continue to fall for the joke, forwarding the message on to many others and cluttering inboxes. One particular well-known hoax is actually a chain letter that has been circulating since 1997 and is related to Bill Gates. The story is that Bill Gates is testing a new email tracking system through Microsoft and users will be paid a stipend according to how many emails they forward. The result: the more emails forwarded, the more money a person can make, or so they believe. This hoax has been dis-reputed again and again, yet it continues to circulate.
Risks and Costs of Hoaxes and Chain Letters
The costs of responding to Internet hoaxes and chain letters are potentially enormous. Even if a hoax does not contain malicious software, the very act of forwarding an email to large numbers of people generates spam. With volumes of people passing similar stories around through inboxes, servers become clogged and mailboxes fill up, leaving no space for legitimate emails and documents.
Alternatively, hoaxes and chain letters that contain malicious software can infect a computer, causing untold damage. This software wreaks havoc on programs and destroys files. There are programs available that will “clean” a computer of viruses and trojans, but many people must have this professionally done. At times, the damaging software will harm a computer beyond repair, forcing a user to buy another.
How to Recognize a Hoax or Chain Letter
When dealing with fraudulent emails and chain letters, there are several red flags that can alert users to hoaxes. Emails that command the reader to forward the message to a certain number of people are generally scams, as legitimate senders do not rely on users to do the work of forwarding. Emails that provide a threat such as, awful things will happen to you if you do not comply are usually scams. For legitimate sounding messages that do not make unrealistic claims, it is best to contact the company first before taking other action. For example, an email message from a cell phone provider about the user account should be verified with the company. The basic fact of most scams is: if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Do not download or forward documents until the source has been checked.
Find an Internet Hoax
There are multiple sites available that are dedicated to the education of Internet users to guide them about hoaxes. These sites provide lists of common hoaxes and chain letters, and give the gist of each story. When receiving a potentially threatening email, it is wise to check one of these sites to ensure credibility first. These sites are updated frequently with new chain letters and hoaxes that are circulating through emails.
Many governing agencies are dedicated to the preservation of email security. These agencies may be contacted if an email hoax is received in order to file a report. The information can then be passed on to others about the hoax to protect them from the scam, which is a legitimate way to provide information to others. Email hoaxes and chain letters result in costly losses of software and computer damage. They also take enormous amounts of time away from people who spend time reading and forwarding, resulting in clogged servers. Hoaxes and chain letters have been around for years and will continue to evolve, but smart Internet users will consider the source before responding to these harmful jokes.
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