I believe in sending replies to everyone who 'warns' me about something that's actually a hoax.
Al Fasoldt's reviews and commentaries, continuously available online since 1983

T e c h n o f i l e
Spotting hoaxes and scams in your e-mail: Sometimes, all you need to do is think

Oct. 15, 2006

By Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 2006, Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 2006, The Post-Standard

   Has your sister-in-law ever "warned" you about virus that's going around? You know, the one that will destroy your hard drive?
   Or have you ever received an e-mail from someone who swears the following is true: Mars is going to look as big as the moon when the Earth and Mars are in close orbits?
   E-mail hoaxes will always be with us. So will scams, such as the one that says you've won the lottery but you have to put up some of your own money as "good faith" in order to collect.
   Sometimes you need nothing more than your head screwed on straight to spot a hoax or a scam. Remember the Walt Disney e-mail hoax? It claimed that Walt Disney would send you an immense amount of money if you forwarded the e-mail letter to everyone in your address book. Walt Disney, of course, had been dead many years by the time this e-mail went around, so it shouldn't have been hard to spot this as a hoax.
   But the Walt Disney hoax (and a similar one that claimed Bill Gates, the wealthy founder of Microsoft, was part of the Disney plan) was easy to spot as a prank in another way. An e-mail that comes from a stranger and asserts that you will get untold riches is automatically a fake.
   I realize this might burst a few bubbles of hope. But the secret of wealth is not sitting at your keyboard waiting for a stranger to send you a million bucks; it's combining hard work, clever planning and, maybe, good luck. Receiving an e-mail from someone you don't know who says you've won a lot of money isn't any of those.
   Sometimes, hoaxes or scams sound almost believable. This was the case for the "giant Mars" hoax, because a lot of people already knew that the moon seems larger when it's near the horizon. So, these folks apparently figured, maybe Mars would look that big, too.
   This hoax spread quickly around the Internet last July and August. "On August 27th," the hoax e-mail said, "Mars will look as large as the full moon."
   But when the orbits came close to each other, Mars looked no larger than a pinpoint. NASA put out a bulletin that helped explain things: "Disappointed? Don't be. If Mars did come close enough to rival the Moon, its gravity would alter Earth's orbit and raise terrible tides."
   So how should you deal with an e-mail that seems to be a hoax, a spoof or a scam?
   Easy. Just look it up. Type the name -- or what might pass for the name -- of the e-mailed subject matter into a Google search form and put the word HOAX after it. If you don't get conclusive results, do the search again, using SCAM.
   The Internet is a gigantic community, and hoaxes or scams usually have been investigated and identified before most of us see them in e-mails. A Google search (using www.google.com) is the fastest way to check into these suspicious subjects.
   One further note: Emily Post might not approve, but I believe in sending replies to everyone who "warns" me about something that's actually a hoax. When I get an e-mail telling me Walt Disney wants to make me rich, I believe the person who thoughtlessly passed that e-mail to me should be told three things -- first, that it's a hoax; second, that Walt Disney has been dead for 40 years; and, third, that a mind is a terrrible thing to waste.
   Oh, well. I'm sure I wouldn't say quite that. Even if I wanted to.