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Tracey E.Schelmetic

Dot Com Commerce

Managing Editor, CUSTOMER INTER@CTION Solutions

[June 27, 2001]

Chicken Little And The Internet

Did you boycott buying gas from specific gas stations during the last week in May? Do you know someone who knows someone whose cousin's dentist woke up in an ice-filled hotel bathtub minus a kidney? Did you pass e-mails on to your friend so Ben and Jerry could save that little girl dying of Dutch Elm Disease? Did you ever (even for a moment) imagine that Bill Gates was going to give you free Microsoft stock if you forwarded an e-mail to 86 of your closest friends? Remember Craig Shergold, the British boy who has been seven years old and dying of an incurable disease for the past twelve years, and who wanted your business cards? If you've ever been suckered in by any of these tales, you're in good company. Most of us have, at one point or another. I remember gawking over the giant cat just a few months ago. I even passed it on to a few friends, one of whom sent me an irritated reply that implied, in a friendly kind of way, "It's fake, you idiot."

Actually, Craig Shergold is apparently real, and his crusade started via fax back in the late 1980s, before most people were using e-mail. He is no longer seven, he no longer has cancer and he had originally asked for get-well cards, not business cards. The Guinness Book of World Records has already reserved a spot for him in relation to the number of get-well cards he received. Unfortunately, the e-mail in question is STILL in circulation. The New York Times has reported that an entire warehouse continues to fill up with unopened mail, and the charity that originally issued the request back in the late '80s has channeled a great deal of their efforts lately to get the word out: "PLEASE stop sending stuff."

The Internet has become a dream tool for conspiracy theorists, hysterics and just plain bored people who get a little thrill out of reading about the woman who licked the envelope and got cockroach eggs in her tongue. Most of these so-called urban myth e-mails are circulated in good faith by individuals -- usually novice e-mail users -- who may not have seen these stories on their first, second, third or even twenty-fourth round. They get the e-mail, read the instructions and dutifully pass the untrue story on to ten of their closest friends.

One of the largest areas of concern lately has been in the virus hoax category. Remember just a few short weeks ago when you or someone you know received an e-mail directing you to delete a file from Windows called SULFNBK.EXE? Computer users around the world dutifully deleted this harmless little file off their hard drives. More headaches than you and I can count were spawned by this hoax, requiring MIS workers everywhere to fix problems caused by the deletion. Think of the collective hours lost as computer users all over the world hunted the file down and deleted it, then passed the e-mail on to battalions of other people, directing them to do the same, and add to those wasted hours the manpower required to rectify the situation. Suddenly, it becomes clear that the perpetrators of such hoaxes are guilty of economic cyber terrorism.

As a populace, we need to become less gullible. We need to start recognizing what's real and what's bogus, and make sure we don't add to the hysteria by sending false information and hoaxes on to everyone in our address books. How do you spot e-mail hoaxes? There are usually some tell-tale clues.

  • The details are extremely non-specific, making fact checking impossible.
  • If "the government" is the bad guy, the e-mail will not identify which branch, implying the government is some type of shadowy collective consciousness, like the Borg from Star Trek: The Next Generation.
  • The e-mail is badly written, and reads like it has been translated into Urdu and back to English a half-dozen times.
  • The text abounds with EXCLAMATION POINTS!!!!!!!!!
  • The e-mail demands that you forward it on to all your friends, essentially turning it into a chain letter.
  • Some threat is made in the e-mail, i.e., AOL Instant Messenger will be cancelled, nasty bugs will infest on, in and about your home/car/body/brother-in-law, kittens are being turned into Bonsai trees, HIV-infected needles will be deposited into the finger holes of your bowling ball, Bosnian refugees will move into your sock drawer, etc.
  • Finally, an offer is made to send you something you'd really like -- $200, a case of champagne, a free trip to Disney World. As your mother always told you, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Several Web sites have appeared over the last few years to keep track of, and debunk, the ever-increasing piles of silliness Web users are so good at perpetuating. One site that keeps track of classic and emerging fake stories circulated via the Internet is UrbandLegends.com. The stories are listed by category and even if you're not hunting down specific information regarding whether or not Humphrey Bogart was the Gerber baby (he was 29 years old when Gerber baby food was launched) or if L. Ron Hubbard is still alive (well, if he were, he would stay in hiding rather than own up to being ultimately responsible for the movie Battlefield Earth anyway), the site is fun to surf. I'm personally waiting for news that the entire *NSYNC tour limo was taken up by space aliens, never to be seen or heard from again. Only because I would like to believe it's true.

For virus warnings, check out Symantec's virus hoax site to make sure you're not being had and, as a result, perpetuating a hoax by forwarding it to your friends. It's bad form to send on a virus warning without first checking out whether it's bogus or not. As Smoky the Cyber Bear would say, if he existed, "Only you can stop e-mail hoaxes."

As a footnote, maybe we're all too gullible when it comes to passing things on, such as the U.S. government reports that reveal that eating asparagus causes our brains to shrink (come to think of it, maybe that's true). May I suggest that next time you find yourself faced with an unbelievable story, sit back, relax and make sure you check your facts first with the Weekly World News, available at fine supermarket checkout counters everywhere.

Readers may contact the author at tschelmetic@tmcnet.com to give generously to Billy Swampfenster, the unfortunate Ohio boy who was born with the body of an aardvark and the head of Phyllis Diller.

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