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E-mail created a revolution in personal communication. If I receive something interesting, I can forward it to my friends. Unlike postal mail, I do not have to retype a message or make copies; I do not have to address envelopes. If I want to send a message to several individuals, I do not need to make a series of phone calls (possibly waking a relative or interrupting a friend's dinner because I forget the difference in time zones). Of course, this also means that distributing a lot of foolishness is much easier.
Hoaxes and frauds have been around for a long time. E-mail merely makes the spread of such misinformation easier and quicker. One problem is that there is no simple method to determine if a message is real or a hoax.
One of the surest clues that a warning is actually a hoax is that it does not contain sufficient details about its origin to allow you to obtain further information from an authoritative source. Something happened someplace (not specified) to someone (unnamed) recently (but when?). However, some hoaxes do contain such specific details (e.g.: A Long Pay from Home).
You have been warned about a computer virus or some new criminal activity. How can you tell a good warning from a bad one? The CIAC (Computer Incident Advisory Capability) at the U. S. Department of Energy had an excellent Web site (no longer existing) that discussed hoaxes, described many common examples, and gave some sound advice on how to distinguish them. The points presented there included:
Reading about examples of hoaxes might also help to create the appropriate skepticism. The Urban Legends Reference Pages is an excellent resource for studying urban legends whose origins are still unknown (thus the designation legend for these hoaxes). There, you can see the analysis used to debunk some wild (and some not so wild) claims. They reproduce the complete text of some widely circulated E-mail messages that are entirely fraudulent; then they carefully dissect each message to make the hoax clear. Also, you can read my own analyses of hoaxes that have been attempted against me.
Be careful! After you become sufficiently skeptical, you might become too skeptical. Legitimate warnings about fraud or other criminal threats (or about computer viruses) are sometimes presented with hyperbole and a disregard for facts, making them appear to be hoaxes. Nevertheless, the threats are real and should be heeded (but only after an analysis of the truth behind them).
When you receive a message from a friend that is a hoax, you should do your friend a favor. Help him or her to avoid future embarrassment: Let your friend know when he or she has been victimized by a hoax, and explain how to recognize hoaxes (possibly by including a link to this page in your reply). Don't compound the current embarrassment, however, by sending this reply to everyone who received your friend's warning. After all, he or she was merely trying to help or protect you.
Updated 21 February 2010