Of all the topics we’ve covered about email, hoaxes are certainly the most harmless, other than irritating your loved ones and wasting everyone’s time. A hoax is a benign email that spreads false information, typically asking (or insisting, or begging, or manipulating) you into forwarding it to everyone in your address book.

Dr. K’s rule of email forwarding: Almost all forwarded emails are hoaxes. Write that down and send it to everyone in your address book. I’m just kidding. Just send it to those who send you hoaxes.

The productivity and bandwidth cost from hoax emails is enormous. More damaging, though, is the fact that email addresses are harvested courtesy of hoax emails. After an email has been forwarded over and over and over again, and a thousand email addresses in the body of the email are visible to everyone, nothing stops spammers from harvesting all of those valid email addresses from all of your former friends.

In case you’re still not quite sure what I’m talking about when I refer to email hoaxes, here are some of my personal favorites from recent years:

  • Warning that the Obama health care reform bill mandates that seniors be given euthanasia counseling.
  • Internet-circulated coupon offers free lunch from Wendy’s.
  • Electronic petition seeks to overturn Congressional vote granting Social Security benefits to illegal aliens.
  • The planet Mars will make a remarkably close approach to Earth.
  • Warning that cell phone numbers are about to be given to telemarketers.
  • Warning about baby carrots made from deformed full-sized carrots which have been permeated with chlorine.
  • A new Pepsi soda can design omits the words “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance.

According to the Department of Energy’s Computer Incident Advisory Capability (www.ciac.org), most hoaxes fall into one of four categories:

  • Fake Warnings. These typically include a call to action, based on some assertion that isn’t actually true.
  • Sob Stories. That girl with bone cancer who’s dying wish is to get into the Guiness Book of World Records for the most get well cards? No. Not true.
  • Too-Good-to-Be-True Offers. These have been around for a very long time. Some company (it changes over the years) is going to do something good for everyone who forwards this message to everyone they know.
  • Urban Legends. These are interesting, entertaining and share-worthy stories. Just too bad they’re not true.

What do you do when you get an email from a friend encouraging you to forward it to everyone in your address book? You’ve got really two plays. First, if you’re inclined, you can help educate your friend by sending them a link to this section of the online version of this book. Then delete the email. Second, if you’re too shy and/or confrontationally averse, you can skip the part where you help educate them and jump right to the part where you delete the email. Remember that any email encouraging you to forward it to everyone you know has already broken some serious social rules and doesn’t deserve your consideration.

A third option is to personally verify that the email is, in fact, a hoax, and then email that information back to the sender. Here are a few tricks for figuring out whether a forwarded email is a hoax. Copy a small chunk of the text and paste that into your favorite search engine with quotes around it. Add the word “hoax” to the search string. Then search. On the first page you’ll likely see a few results from sites talking about this particular email, and how it’s been making the rounds for the past 10 years. A few sites are particularly handy, especially www.snopes.com. I’ve had acquaintances, desperate to forward a hoax email, ask me, “But why should I trust Snopes?!” To which my reply is that Snopes has a strong reputation on the web as objective and thorough in their investigation of hoaxes across the web. I’ll put Snopes up against a random piece of email originating from an anonymous source and forwarded a thousand times.

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