September 15, 2006

The Immortal E-Mail: Detecting Fake "Chain Letter" Messages

Greetings. One of the more annoying aspects of e-mail these days is the continuously increasing volume of "chain letter" messages of all sorts, which almost inevitably contain content which is fraudulent, criminal, propagandistic, misleading, or just plain garbage. Some of these messages propagate for many years, with a sort of electronic immortality.

Ironically, most of these messages are passed along by individuals who believe that they're doing a favor for their correspondents by forwarding onward an "important" note that is assumed to be truthful and useful.

These messages waste resources and people's time in the best case, and can result in major financial losses and other serious negative effects in the worst.

A few simple, interrelated guidelines can help anyone to determine whether a message falls into this "chain letter" category before they decide to forward it onward.

First, consider the subject. If a message contains a dramatic warning, alarming story, emotional appeal, or other material that seems like the sort of information that deserves mass media exposure, but for some reason you haven't heard about it from the media, your alarm bells should go off.

Contrary to the beliefs of some media detractors, print and broadcast media isn't in the business of suppressing information -- they're in the business of maximizing the numbers of eyeballs and ears that are exposed to their work, and compelling stories of all types are their bread and butter. Ask yourself why the material you read in a chain letter message has somehow been "missed" by the media if the message is really so important and on the level? The answer is -- the vast majority of the time -- that much or all of the material in the chain letter is inaccurate and unverifiable.

Keep in mind that a chain letter message doesn't have to be asking for money. In many cases, these messages are basically propaganda, pushing particular political, religious, or other points of view based on totally faked or manipulated information, often with a dramatic emotional punch. Because such messages can strike a deep chord in many readers, they often are driven to pass them along immediately, even though they've made no effort to verify that the message content is accurate in any way. Chain letter messages often arrive from senders that you know personally, which tends to give the messages even more appeal.

This brings us to the second easy test for chain letter messages. When you receive a message that contains a long series of forwarding headers -- seemingly endless arrays of To: and CC: entries, sometimes comprising much of the total text of the message -- you should immediately be suspicious. This sort of forwarding pattern is suggestive that the information in the message has a high likelihood of being false in at least some important aspects.

This relates directly to the test I mentioned earlier -- it's indicative that the story has not been disseminated by mass media and is not widely available on reputable Web sites, so it's being passed around from person to person. Like that previous test, this "header test" is also not a fullproof method to determine whether or not a message is legit -- but it's a big help in the process.

Finally, when you suspect a message, do a little research before sending it onward. A few minutes with your favorite search engine will usually quickly expose many chain letters, since they tend to have been discussed widely by previous recipients. Simply search on some of the names or other key words in the message. Visiting "urban legend" sites such as Snopes can also be very useful in these situations.

Hopefully these suggestions will be of some value when it comes to helping you decide whether or not to forward onward that next piece of dramatic and compelling e-mail that arrives in your inbox.

Feel free to forward this message onward -- but please don't turn it into a chain letter!

Take care, all.


Posted by Lauren at September 15, 2006 09:56 AM | Permalink
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