If you have email, it is virtually guaranteed that either you already have, or soon will, receive an Internet hoax email. They go by a variety of names, including e-hoaxes, e-rumours, urban legends or chain letters, yet they all amount to the same thing - junk and a waste of time. Fortunately, there are now numerous websites devoted to exposing and eradicating these fraudulent bits and bytes of electronic refuse.
Most of the common e-hoaxes promise one of two things:
The reader will receive money or some other form of reward.
Money will be donated to some worthy cause, the amount depending on the number of people the email is sent to.
However, at the time of writing, there is no reliable, simple or sure-fire method to track the progress of an email through the Internet. This means that there is absolutely no good reason for forwarding these types of e-hoax at all.
Other forms of e-hoax are filled with dire warnings, urging the reader to act immediately. It may also warn the reader to use 'extreme caution' for a specific reason, or even to avoid whatever the topic is altogether.
One very common e-hoax that is currently circulating (at the time of writing) concerns canola oil. The email claims that it is...
... a highly dangerous product, which is toxic to humans, animals and insects.
It also purports that canola oil is directly responsible for the massive outbreak of Mad Cow Disease in England. However, the truth of the matter has shown these claims to be utterly false in independent scientific research studies. Canola is actually healthier for most people than any other current form of cooking oil. As to what actually caused Mad Cow Disease in England, that's a matter of record. But nowhere is there a mention of canola oil being a possible cause.
Another e-hoax insists that if you forward on an email to a certain number of people it will run a cute animated clip or do something else. At the moment, no email program has the capability to do that. It would require tracking exactly how, when and where all the emails were forwarded to, and as stated earlier, that just can't be done.
One of the most persistent and common of all e-hoaxes is the email virus warning. These range from the absurd to the unfortunately true. While it is impossible to encode a virus into an email, it is relatively simple to encode a virus into a file attached to an email. This depends on the type of file attached. Image and picture files are safe. Where most people run into trouble is when they open what they think is a picture attached to an email, when in fact it isn't. This was demonstrated with the Anna Kournikova virus; the file attached to the email was annakournikova.jpg.vbs. The .vbs at the end of the filename indicates that the file is a Visual Basic Script (a program), and not a picture.
An email without a file attached to it cannot be infected by any known virus at present. The best way to deal with an email, with or without attachments, is this; if you don't know who sent it, where it came from, or have never heard of the company that sent it - delete it unopened. If an email remains unopened, even if there is a virus in the file attached to it, it will not and cannot affect your computer. While this seems ridiculously simple to do, you would not believe how often this is not done. Ask your local network administrator at work if you want confirmation of this.
How to Spot an E-hoax
Most e-hoaxes have several things in common. Once this is realised, they are easier to spot when you come across another one. Each e-hoax has its own unique 'flavour' to it, but most of them lack easily verifiable, solid first-hand information. Instead, they are usually what urban legend expert Dr Jan H Brunvand refers to as a 'friend-of-a-friend' type story.
They nearly always lack the Five Ws (Who, What, Where, When and Why), which make for good informational reporting. They nearly always contain the 'How' portion, but any email claiming to be a warning or to have important information that doesn't answer those five questions clearly should be viewed with definite suspicion.
Even on the rare occasion when an e-hoax does include specific details, they are most often distorted versions of the truth, incorrect or made up. The following e-hoax regarding the US Congress is an excellent example.
Can you imagine working for a company that has a little more than 500 employees and has the following statistics:
- 29 have been accused of spousal abuse
- Seven have been arrested for fraud
- 19 have been accused of writing bad checks
- 117 have directly or indirectly bankrupted at least two businesses
- Three have done time for assault
- 71 cannot get a credit card due to bad credit
- 14 have been arrested on drug-related charges
- Eight have been arrested for shoplifting
- 21 are defendants in lawsuits
- 84 have been arrested for drunk driving in the last year
Can you guess which organisation this is?
Give up yet?
It is the 535 members of the United States Congress. The same group of idiots that crank out hundreds of new laws each year designed to keep the rest of us in line. You gotta pass this one on!
This e-hoax is misleading in many ways. Although it doesn't say it, the statistics come from a series of articles written by the website of Capitol Hill Blue. The articles also cover both present and past members of Congress - though with the way it's written, the email makes it appear as if the statistics apply to the current Congress. Not every instance of wrongdoing is revealed or documented, but the writers claim to have this information.
If you take into account the fact that the US Congress is one of the oldest legislative branches in the United States and has been around in excess of 225 years, these statistics suddenly take on a different appearance. One must also take into account the fact that no names are given to show who is purportedly guilty of having done what. One individual could possibly be responsible for more than ten separate offences and could have died more than 150 years ago. There's no way of telling with the information that's been given.
The topic of the e-hoax is usually something unique and unusual enough which makes it something worth being passed on and retold. They usually inspire fear, loathing or revulsion, which in turn, prompts us to act on the email. They may confirm our prejudices and fears with an 'I told you so!' manner. Most of them contain the bare details or portions of the story, which just don't make sense when put together. They may try to make you feel guilty if you don't forward the message on. Unfortunately, some of them have just been around for so long that they are now common knowledge and therefore considered true.
Websites Giving Further Information
There are numerous websites dedicated to exposing e-hoaxes:
For an extensive list of e-hoaxes, the Truth or Fiction Site is where to go.
The Urban Legends Research Centre is also a good resource.