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Watch that "Forward" Button!


Ed Poplin
LonePalm Graphics

I know you've done it. I've done it. We've all done it. But don't do it automatically. 

You know how it goes. You get a joke, or an inspirational email of one kind or another, and you say to yourself, "Self? I bet EVERYONE in my address book would LOVE to have this!" And so, you click on the proper buttons in your email program, and all 1,485 persons in your address book, from Albert to Ziggy, will see the mailing you found so funny or so inspirational.

I'm not for a moment suggesting you stop sharing your favorite chuckles with Albert, and Ziggy needs all the positive statements she can read. But have you ever received, and forwarded email that promised money for sending it to everyone in your address book, a plea to help a crippled boy, a virus warning, or the like? I want you to raise your right hand and repeat after me. "I will no longer forward messages that contain warnings, requests or the like, because they're nothing but rumors, and I will not forward any more rumors."

Yeah, I'd heard that about you.

These "Internet hoaxes" may seem harmless --- many are not, by the way ---- but even if every one of them was perfectly innocuous, forwarding them contributes greatly to the amount of spam that plugs our digital mail delivery systems. For instance, do any of these seem familiar?

  • "Netscape and AOL have recently merged to form the largest internet company in the world. In an effort to remain at pace with this giant, Microsoft has introduced a new email tracking system as a way to keep Internet Explorer as the most popular browser on the market. This email is a beta test of the new software and Microsoft has generously offered to compensate those who participate in the testing process."

  • If you got this email you're lucky (don't delete). You have just won a 100 dollars!....... You will only get the money if you send this to 5 or more people. A box will appear on the screen after you have sent it! It really works.... try it! Take 5 min. out of your time and send this...believe me you won't be sorry!!"

  • "BIG TROUBLE !!!! DO NOT OPEN "WTC Survivor" It is a virus that will erase your whole "C" drive. It will come to you in the form of an E-Mail from a familiar person. I repeat a friend sent it to me, but called and warned me before I opened it. He was not so lucky and now he can't even start his computer! Forward this to everyone in your address book. I would rather receive this 25 times than not at all. If you receive an email called "WTC Survivor" do not open it. Delete it right away! This virus removes all dynamic link libraries (.dll files) from your computer."

How do you recognize these hoaxes for what they are? Well, many hoaxes contain promises of money for every person to whom you forward the message. If you ever see that statement, or something similar, you can delete it. There is no such thing as a program that can track email, and there never can be a program that tracks forwarded email, because of the way email is handled on the Internet.

You see, in order for something like that to work, several things would have to be true:

1. All email, regardless of its source or destination, would have to be identified at a central point.
2. Your email software would have to know the origin of every forwarded message, then send a message to that starting point every time you forward that email.

The reason the Internet works is that there is no central computer. For various reasons some large Internet-related companies, users or servers have gone down from time to time, but the 'Net still functioned. Traffic just bypassed the effected areas.

For instance, I live in Florida. As an extremely odd coincidence, so do many people I send email to. It is extremely likely that any email I send to one of my fellow Floridians would never leave the physical borders of the Sunshine State. If you live in New York, and send an email to a relative in the old country, odds are that your email will zip across the Atlantic, and never go near a computer in any other state. Since there's no central email handling facility, so to speak, there's simply no way to keep track of who sent an email, how many times it got forwarded, and who received them.

Regardless of the lack of email tracking software, companies and businesses are not standing in line to give away money, gift certificates, or merchandise. I've always observed that Rome did not become great by reaching group consensus; Rome became great by killing the opposition. Similarly, Microsoft did not become rich sending money to innumerable email users. Microsoft became rich by hoarding its cash.

Please read: There ain't no such thing as a free lunch.

Virus hoaxes vary, but they all have one common thread: They never come from a recognized source of information or knowledge about viruses. An email bulletin from Symantec or antivirus.com I'll believe; an email warning from "a friend," especially if it contains WORDS IN ALL CAPITALS!!! and multiple exclamation marks I won't.

Now, you might very well say to yourself, "Self?" (there you go, talking to yourself again) "Why not send this on? After all, better safe than sorry." Wrong, beta-breath.

Many of the virus hoaxes tell you how to delete files on your computer that you actually need. They also unnecessarily spread a certain level of fear and mistrust, and after enough bad experiences with phony warnings, some users might disregard any of them, even the ones from legitimate sources.

Many of these hoaxes have caused significant problems for companies or organizations. A very well known restaurant chain, for instance, had to put up a special section on its web site, just to tell people that it was not participating in a gift certificate giveaway. I wonder how many people stopped going to that restaurant just because they felt the company was trying to cheat them out of something they earned. A well-known sports apparel maker had its shipping unit almost shut down, because it got flooded with old shoes. (The hoax promised that if people sent the company their old shoes, the company would use them to shoe barefoot third-world children, and send them a brand new replacement pair for their efforts). Again, I'd be willing to wager that company lost a certain amount of business because the hoax cost it a certain amount of goodwill.

How can you be sure that what you're reading is a hoax, and not a legitimate request or warning? Well, the first thing you can do is check to see if anyone else has reported the message you've received. Odds are good that's true; many of today's hoaxes have been in circulation for years. Two good sources for debunking Internet myths is Hoaxbusters and Urban Legends.

We should take warnings about new viruses seriously, but again, only if they come from a trusted source. If you're unfamiliar with their services, both Trend Micro and Norton offer fully-searchable databases of virus hoaxes, in addition to the legitimate security threats. I'd recommend you subscribe to one of their newsletters or security bulletins as well.

But regardless of the source of the hoax or its purpose, you can play a big role in stopping hoaxes in their digital tracks. Just don't forward them. Delete them. Remember: If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. No person, and no company has any software that can track email. No company is going to send you anything of value for sending email. And any email you receive that tells you to delete a file on your hard drive can safely be ignored and discarded.

Now, forward this article to everyone in your address book. Do it immediately, and a well-known computer-related company will send you a brand-new, state of the art system. ;-)

About the author:
Ed Poplin has been a professional writer and designer for more than 20 years. He's been writing about computers, the Internet, and their related technologies since 1994.

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