Saturday, February 25, 2006

Chain letters - an internet hoax

Have you ever received a message about a little girl dying of cancer, asking you to send it to everyone you know?

What about a message that you will experience a miracle within ten days if you send it to ten people but suffer bad luck if you don’t?

How about a message about a new virus, warning you not to open an email with a certain title, telling you to pass it on to everyone you know?

If you receive an email telling you to forward it to others, chances are it is a hoax. These messages play on your sympathy or fear, a form of social engineering. It is meant to influence you to do something you would not do otherwise.

Some chain letters are developed by spammers to collect email addresses so they can send unsolicited email later on. For example, a spammer wants to send out an advertisement about a sexual enhancement product to a thousand addresses. He can collect these addresses by making a chain letter announcing that a little girl is dying of cancer, inducing the reader to pray and pass on this email to “everyone you know” including the one who sent it to you. If you pass this on to a hundred email addresses and your friends do the same, it would not take long for the spammer to harvest 1,000 addresses.

Other chain letters may not come from spammers but are made to clog the internet to make servers slow down, to waste the users’ time and network space, to see how far a letter will go, to damage someone’s reputation or harass another person.

Hoaxbusters (http://hoaxbusters.ciac.org/) says a chain letter has three parts: a hook or title that catches your attention (“A little girl is dying” or “Virus alert”), a threat that something bad will happen if you ignore it, and a request (“Pass this on to everyone you know”).

One chain letter that has been passed around quite a lot is about a seven-year-old girl named Jessica Mydek (other names have been used) suffering from cancer. It has several versions, but it essentially says that for every person who receives this letter, the American Cancer Society will donate three cents for cancer research. Here’s one version cited in the website of Electronic Chain Mail (http://www.microtech.doe.gov/assist/chain_letters.html) :
Jessica Mydek is seven years old and is suffering from an acute and very rare case of cerebral carcinoma. this condition causes severe malignant brain tumors and is a terminal illness. The doctors have given her six months to live. As part of her dying wish, she wanted to start a chain letter to inform people of this condition and to send people the message to live life to the fullest and enjoy every moment, a chance that she will never have.
Furthermore, the American Cancer Society and several corporate sponsors have agreed to donate three cents toward continuing cancer research for every new person that gets forwarded this message. Please give Jessica and all cancer victims a chance. Add acs@aol.com to the list of people that you send this to so that the American Cancer Society will be able to calculate how many people have gotten this. If there are any questions, send them to the American Cancer Society at acs@aol.com.
Three cents for every person that receives this letter turns out to be a lot of money considering how many people will get this letter and how many people they, in turn, pass it on to. Please go ahead and forward it to whoever you know- it really doesn't take much to help out.

The website of the American Cancer Society denies ever endorsing this chain letter, and further states that the story of Jessica Mydek has never been substantiated. It also says that the address acs@aol.com is inactive. To check this out, visit http://www.cancer.org/ and go to “Press Room” at the foot of the home page; click on “Rumor, myths and truths” on the left margin; click on “Email hoaxes and chain mail” and you will see several hoaxes other than the Jessica Mydek story.

How do we deal with chain letters? The best way is to ignore them. If you cannot simply do this, you can verify them from several websites, including the following:

· Hoaxbusters (http://hoaxbusters.ciac.org/)
· Symantec (http://www.symantec.com/avcenter/hoax.html)
· Scambusters (http://www.scambusters.org/)