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Stop the e-mail madness!
technofile  by al fasoldt

Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology
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Virus warnings? Chain letters? Stop the e-mail madness!

Sites you should know about: Bob Rosenberger's outstanding site on virus myths and Symantec's site on virus hoaxes.

Bit Player for Jan. 24, 1999

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1999, The Syracuse Newspapers

Wake up, people. Stop clogging up my e-mail with warnings about viruses.

Stop forwarding notes about little girls who are dying of cancer and company presidents who are giving away millions of dollars to people who send them mail.

Stop clogging up everybody else's e-mail, too. I don't know any polite way of saying this, so I'll just be blunt: You're not helping matters. You're making things worse. You're acting like you have no mind of your own.

The sad thing about this is that all those viruses you're warning us about are hoaxes. People don't send out real warnings about real viruses in chain letters. That's just not how it's done. All those little girls who are dying don't even exist. Bill Gates isn't going to take his Microsoft billions and give a few million here and there to someone who sends him a chain letter.

Get real. I have a hard time understanding how people can be taken in so totally by all this dumb e-mail. If I knocked on your door wearing a silly disguise, I'd bet you'd laugh if I told you some millionaire wanted to give you money. But all I have to do is send out a totally weird e-mail letter about a "plan" that Bill Gates came up with to make anonymous people rich, and thousands of otherwise smart people fall for it.

If you get mail from a stranger who tells you someone is dying, guess what? The only thing that's in danger of succumbing is your own common sense. One of the biggest chain-letter hoaxes these days is the Girl with Cancer Hoax: She's dying, and her last wish is to get letters from people around the country. Or maybe dollars. Or prayers. Religion gets caught up in these hoaxes, too.

The virus hoaxes are a big waste of time and effort. Real viruses are a genuine problem, but these chain letters just make things harder. Virus researchers often say they spend more time debunking virus myths than fighting real viruses.

The Internet's system of forwarding e-mail gets a 10-lb brick in its knapsack every time somebody sends out one of these chain letters. If you fall for the premise of sending a copy to everyone you know, you're doing a very Bad Thing. Making a zillion letters out of a few is not smart.

Simple math, the kind you learned in grade school, will tell you that 20 times 20 is 400, and 400 times 400 is ... you get the point. This kind of junk doesn't add up. It multiplies up. You start out with two and get hundreds of thousands in no time at all.

So what do you do when someone sends you some e-mail with a warning about a virus or a note about the little girl who needs to hear from people around the country? I've wrestled with this problem myself, and I'm still not sure what's the right thing to do. But here's what I suggest.

First, if the person who sent the mail is someone you know, write to that person (but not to EVERYONE listed in the addresses) and explain that the letter is based on a hoax. Clip this article (electronically, of course) and paste it into your reply. Maybe that will help a little.

Second, if you don't know the person who sent the letter, you have a MUCH simpler job. Trash the letter. Get rid of it. Toss it out. Sayonara, baby. Toodle-oo. Don't even finish reading it. With a little practice, you can spot these letters without even reading past the subject. Hint: If the subject says "Fwd: SEND THIS TO EVERYONE YOU KNOW!" or something similar, send it straight to the trash. Don't pass go, don't collect $200 and don't even bother reading the mail.

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