E-mail Safety Tips

Have you ever received an e-mail message that says something like "EXTREMELY URGENT INFORMATION ABOUT DEADLY VIRUS!!!!" or "A LITTLE GIRL DYING!!!!"

If you are like most people, you probably get messages like these at least once a week. They usually contain some dire warning about health or safety issues or some sad, sad story and instruct you to "FORWARD THIS TO EVERYONE YOU KNOW!!!"

What to do? Hit the delete key because these are e-mail hoaxes or chain letters. These e-mail messages contain no fact at all. There are no flesh-eating bananas or what not, and there is probably no little girl dying. These are message made up by someone with too much time on their hands then forwarded around the Internet until they wind up in your e-mailbox.

The U.S. Department of Energy's Computer Incident Advisory Capability (CIAC) group monitors and debunks phony virus alerts, chain letters, and e-mail hoaxes as part of its security program. According to CIAC, e-mail hoaxes have become so prevalent that they are considered as much of a threat to networks as actual viruses. Why? Because hoaxes can create such an unusually high volume of e-mail traffic that they can crash a server--just like a real virus. Some companies now forbid the forwarding of chain e-mail by employees for this very reason.

Here are some ways to spot a hoax:

  • Was the text actually written by the person who sent it to you? If not, be skeptical. Messages that have been forwarded many times are usually hoaxes.
  • The message says "Forward this to everyone you know."
  • Look for lots of use of UPPERCASE LETTERS and !!!!.
  • The message says it contains "extremely important" information that you've never seen or heard before from legitimate sources.
  • The message uses lots of technical jargon and big words.
  • The message contains no references to outside sources. Hoaxes typically provide no way for you to check the information.
  • If the message says "This is not a hoax" or "This is not an urban legend," it usually is. Most chain e-mail you receive (i.e., any message forwarded multiple times) are false. 
Why have hoaxes become such a problem? One reason may be the constant arrival of new and inexperienced e-mail users who are unaware of how much misinformation there is on the Internet. So before you forward that "new, dire warning" you just received, use some healthy skepticism and check out legitimate sources.

For more information about e-mail hoaxes, check out: