E-mail hoaxes prey on over vigilant friends

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va., (U-Wire) — DANGER! If you receive any e-mail within the next 24 hours, do not open it! The entire Internet is closed down for annual cleaning, so any e-mail must be a virus! My best friend’s brother’s dog groomer’s postman knows this kid who created an all-new unstoppable Trojan Dutch Elm virus and its binary loop mechanism is attacking hard drives, floppy disks, alarm clocks and hot water heaters, and if you open it, the word “scent” will be erased from the English language! Please read on for a special offer from Bill Gates …
Perhaps the best thing about Internet hoaxes and chain letters is their humor value. Some spinoffs are frankly laughable, such as the “Good Times” spoof that claims the virus “will give your ex-girlfriend your new phone number. It will mix Kool-aid into your fish tank. It will drink all your beer and leave its socks out on the coffee table when there’s company coming over.”
But some aren’t so funny. They might threaten bodily harm, request money or services or libel a person or organization. Not only are these e-mails annoying; they are illegal. Yet people still send them. I get loads of these things, often from friends, with a “Sorry guys, but just in case” disclaimer at the top. These are usually the ones that claim that a young girl has a very rare case of Dilbert’s bent-tie syndrome and only has two minutes to live so we should all forward this e-mail NOW so Bill Gates will donate money to research this rare disease. I bet it’s so rare that no one has ever even caught it.
Many more are the good Samaritan “virus warning” e-mails. Some of these actually do sound real — they include technical mumbo-jumbo that the average computer user doesn’t understand. People believe them and send them on, once again just in case.
Do a little math and just in case turns into a huge nuisance. If I send one e-mail to 10 people, and those 10 people send it to 10 people, and they send it to 10 more, that’s already 10,000 virus warnings taking up time, energy and cyberspace. In a few more passes, 10,000 turns into a million, and pretty soon the entire population of New York City could be “infected” with a nonvirus called a chain letter.
Certain forms of these letters are illegal. Just like real mail, anything that asks for money — and promises you that you’ll receive more money in return — or threatens you, is violating the law, not to mention most universities’ conduct policies.
Webster’s defines an even more serious charge, libel, as “defamation of a person in writing or printing.” Passing on false information about someone, thereby damaging his reputation, is not only unjust; it is also libel. A recent example is the Jane Fonda letter disseminating through the Web. This e-mail claims that Jane Fonda — who did, in fact, publicly oppose the war effort in Vietnam — also committed acts of treason.
As far as I can tell, these allegations are not true. The e-mail does nothing to substantiate its claims other than drop some names, and anyone can claim they’re someone on the Internet. Despite its potentially libelous content, however, people have circulated it enough that it has landed on my desktop three times, often via friends or colleagues I thought were smart enough to check their sources first. Now their names and e-mail addresses are on any future forwarding of that e-mail — they are connected to the potentially illegal act.
Computer Incident Advisory Capability at ciac.llnl.gov/ciac/CIACHoaxes.html gives these helpful hints for red-flagging possible hoaxes:
Simple text e-mail messages cannot be tracked. A return receipt message lets you know someone you sent it to received it, but the backtracking stops there. Simple text e-mail messages also cannot hold viruses.
Only attachments can open and run potential viruses.
The Federal Commerce Commission never has and never will send a warning. It’s not their job. Actual alerts do come from the CIAC, CERT, ASSIST and NASIRC. To verify their signature, either go to the Web site listed above for the CIAC or to www.first.org for the others and verify their signature. Then report the virus to your local Internet server or authority.
The best hoaxes use technical terms and attempt to legitimize themselves by association, such as the supposed Bill Gates tracking systems. Also, they rarely include the name of the first sender or any verifiable information. You may have received notice that Congress is attempting to tax e-mail and Internet time, including Congressman Tony Schnell’s plan to impose a $40 surcharge. There’s no Tony Schnell, and no such bill is lurking in the lineup of either house. Any legitimate e-mail that claims governmental action should include which body of Congress the bill will appear in, which Committee it comes from, a bill number and possible language from the bill. If in doubt, check http://thomas.loc.gov for a list of upcoming legislation.
In the meantime, watch out for the very first virus spoofed by Robert Morris III in 1988: “Over 300,000 systems have been hit by it here in Murphy, West Dakota alone! And that’s just in the last 12 minutes. Do not use electric lights, electric or gas heat or air-conditioning, running water, writing, fire, clothing or the wheel.” And please don’t send e-mails “just in case” they might be true. If in doubt, delete it.
Emily Harding’s column originally appeared in Friday’s University of Virginia paper, the Cavalier Daily.