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Despite warnings, e-mail hoaxes still fooling people
(CNN) -- Telemarketing scams undoubtedly began just after the invention of the telephone; e-mail hoaxes were no different. Along with the convenience of e-mail came the scourge of those preying upon the world's new interconnectedness.
Messages offering everything from medical advice to untold riches arrive from a friend, colleague or loved one, appearing to be beneficial in nature. All they ask in return is that you forward it to everyone you know, much like an electronic chain letter.
But before you send the message on its way again, computer professionals say, "hold that click."
Web designer and programmer Charles Hymes has been operating a Web site for the past five years that is dedicated to dispelling myths about e-mail hoaxes. Yet even after all that time, he still sees countless people fall for scare tactics, the lure of easy money and urban legends.
"They're often taking advantage of people's lack of computer sophistication," he said from his office in San Francisco. "There is almost nothing that's too outrageous for someone to believe in. A message might say aliens are taking over the Catholic Church and they'd believe it."
Content is varied
Hymes recalled a particularly mischievous, though relatively harmless e-mail hoax that recently made the rounds. Recipients were told to shut off their computer on April 1 for the annual cleaning of the Internet.
"The date should have been people's first clue that it was a prank," said Hymes.
But the content of the hoaxes isn't always so innocuous.
Another e-mail hoax told people to be cautious of bananas imported from Costa Rica since they could contain a flesh-eating bacterium, Hymes said. The message went on to tell people to burn their skin off if they developed any symptoms.
Hymes said he created his Web site with altruistic intentions and to curb the dissemination of such hoaxes, adding, "if it's good to educate, then it's evil to misinform."
He said he's seen maybe one or two legitimate forwarded e-mails amidst the hundreds of hoaxes.
"If you get a message that's forwarded from a bunch of people just assume it's not true."
Baylor University, AOL get headache from hoax
An e-mail hoax that began circulating about a year ago has started reappearing again -- much to the frustration of those mentioned in the message.
The hoax encourages people to forward the message to help America Online Inc. and Intel Corp. with an "e-mail beta test" that is being used to "track" the messages -- a claim that computer experts soundly denounce as fiction.
In exchange, the author of the message tells people they could receive a check for upwards of $4,000, depending on how many times it's forwarded. The message goes so far as to say an attorney has verified it. And if they want to speak with someone who's received a reward for their efforts, they can send an e-mail to the address provided, a person who is supposed to work at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.
Except that no such person exists, and network administrators at Baylor have received so many messages they've implemented an automated reply. Just this past month, they say they've been getting as many as 2,000 messages per day.
"We also get people e-mailing us and asking for their money," said Mike Hutcheson, systems manager at Baylor. "We have no idea where it originated, and we haven't heard from anybody with a grudge against the university."
AOL spokesman Nicholas Graham said that particular incident is a "hoax with a capital 'h,' and the only place people should forward that message is to their recycling bin."
To provide further information, AOL has links on its main page to sites that list e-mail hoaxes.
"If it sounds too good to be true, then it probably is."
Graham said the company takes e-mail hoaxes very seriously, noting that they have pursued the originators and issued warnings. If it's an extreme case, Graham said, AOL will terminate the user's account.
Tracking can be tricky
But tracking the originator of the hoax can be no simple task, especially if it has been sent to thousands of people already, said Dan Takata, virus specialist at F-Secure Inc., a security solutions firm in San Jose, California.
While there are programs available to trace the path of the hoax, a scan can typically only be done in the early stages of the forwarding process, Takata said. In addition, the originators of the hoax often disguise their identity by routing their message through a variety of servers.
Takata emphasized that the best approach when receiving any questionable message is to permanently remove it, even if it has been forwarded from a reliable source. Software is available for businesses to install on their gateway to filter e-mail hoaxes, said Takata, but it isn't 100 percent effective and individual users need to more vigilant.
As such, experts say, people shoulder the responsibility of not perpetuating the cycle of an e-mail hoax by deleting them immediately.
"Some of them can be quite disturbing, especially if you're new to the Internet," he said. "Hopefully as time goes by people will become more computer literate."
Hoaxes: Illegal or unethical?
Whether the e-mail hoaxes are regarded as illegal or simply unethical can be a matter of degrees, say two officials from the U.S. Department of Justice.
Jonathan Rusch, special counsel for fraud prevention, said when an e-mail hoax has the intent to defraud or injure it is more serious and could be considered libelous or criminal. There are also instances when people have sent what appears to be a legitimate press release about a company takeover, which amounts to securities manipulation.
"We have prosecuted cases where people send stuff to a financial bulletin board saying 'X' company is being bought out by 'Y' company in order to try and affect the stock price," Rusch said.
The rationale behind someone sending an e-mail hoax can vary, said Philip Reitinger, deputy chief for the computer crimes and intellectual property section of the criminal division. The main impetus is usually the hope of fooling a large audience. But other reasons could be related to employee disgruntlement, political activism or monetary gain.
"People don't need to turn away from technology," said Reitinger. "But they should view incoming e-mail with a healthy degree of skepticism."
Rusch echoed the comments of Reitinger and underscored the need for people to be wary of what shows up in their inbox.
"A lot of people forwarding e-mail hoaxes have an extraordinary degree of faith and believe that whatever they read on the Internet must be true," he said. "The reality is, as long as there is spam and people continue to blindly assume the reliability of e-mail, people will keep sending hoaxes."
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