Computer Hoaxes for the Beginner

Can you say, “hoax?”

With the advent of email, one person can send millions of messages. With the help of willing accomplice friends, a single hoax chain letter can multiply into hundreds of millions. There are any number of hoaxes and well-meaning people can unwittingly propagate them.

Some hoaxes are political disinformation; some are scams, some are chain letters, and some are just outdated information making the rounds again. The disinformation type are intended to hurt some public figure or company, the scams are intended to separate you from your money, the chain letters can plug up the Internet (and eventually can make your Internet access cost more), and the old information can get you to do the wrong thing.

There are two warning signs. If it seems to good too be true, it probably is (where have you heard that before?), and if it says something breathless like, “Send this to everyone on your list right away,” you probably shouldn’t. Often, these hoaxes quote people and institutions. You can call or email those people and institutions to check. Often there will be a web page mentioning the existence of the hoax, as millions of people will have received it.

I received an email from a relative last year, decrying Barbara Walter’s selection of Jane Fonda as a “Woman of the Century,” and detailing statements and actions she took at the time of the Viet Nam War. The email was a hoax that took some facts, some outright lies, and some outdated information and put them all together. Fonda did say some of the things in the early 70’s that were mentioned in the email (although she apologized on television in 1988), didn’t do many of the things mentioned, and the Walters event took place 5 years ago. Someone wanted to damage Fonda, and found an audience willing to propagate this hoax, over and over again.

The Nigerian scam has a lot of variations. The basic story is that a rich person has a fortune they need to get out of the (name your favorite politically oppressed) country and they need your help. In exchange, you get some percentage of these millions. When you reply, you get asked for your bank account number (for them to deposit the funds) and possibly a small deposit (to show your trustworthiness). People have been taken in by this scam for two decades, and more than a $100 million.

As for the email telling you that Bill Gates is giving you money for every time you forward an email — it ain’t gonna happen. It’s just a chain letter, and some versions give you a virus for your trouble.

If you aren’t sure an email you get is talking about something real, try going to one of the websites that are dedicated to exposing these hoaxes. They don’t always completely agree, so you might check a couple. In any case, they make for entertaining reading:

Finally, some hoax emails exist just to send around data-damaging Trojans or viruses. They propagate via the unwitting actions of friendly emails being sent to others. They can make your data unusable, crash your computer. We can usually recover your data when the data damaged by the malignant email is needed. We have saved the day for thousands of happy clients. If you have this problem, give us a call or drop us an email.

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