Common sense required for online reading
E-mail hoaxes prey on emotions, financial need
(CNN) -- If you have e-mail, then odds are you've been the victim -- or attempted victim -- of a hoax. What can you do to avoid being taken? Bruce Burkhardt gets some tips from journalist and consumer technology guru Marc Saltzman.
BRUCE BURKHARDT: We've gotten to the point where there's so much junk on the on the Internet -- so many hoaxes and scams that are out there. How do we know what's what?
MARC SALTZMAN: Well, let's first differentiate between a hoax and a scam. A scam is a malicious attempt to swindle someone out of money. We're not looking at that today. We're going to look at hoaxes, which are like pranks.
BURKHARDT: What's an example of a hoax?
SALTZMAN: Let's break them into four categories. The first one I would call a give-away hoax. These are very popular. For example this e-mail says, "Hi, I'm the founder of Applebee's restaurant. We're offering a $50 gift certificate for anybody who forwards this e-mail to nine of their friends." So, it looks authentic -- it's signed by the founder, there's a Web site, but of course, it's not true there are cash give-away promises. There are ones from AOL, Apple and Microsoft. [AOL Time Warner is the parent company of CNN.com.] We've seen these resurface time after time over the past couple of years and they always take a new form -- a new company, a new, different angle.
BURKHARDT: So, how do you see through it?
SALTZMAN: You can go to the Web site, that's probably the first thing you should do -- is go to Applebee's Web site, and if the company is savvy enough, they'll know that this hoax is out there. And indeed, if you do go to Applebees.com, there is a disclaimer right there, bold, right on the main page saying this is not true, you're not going to get a $50 gift certificate.
BURKHARDT: So the second kind of hoax is what then?
SALTZMAN: It would be like an urban legend. A piece e-mail that gave you some sort of sob story, where, if you're gullible, you'll believe it and perhaps forward it on to other people. The classic example is "My child is sick -- if you forward this around I can collect a petition to raise money for her." It really preys on your emotions.
BURKHARDT: So what's the motive here -- are they trying to get money?
SALTZMAN: No ... the motives for most of these hoaxes are just to see who can fall for it. They get a kick out of knowing that, literally, thousands, if not millions of people are going to receive this in their e-mail inbox and maybe even get media exposure.
BURKHARDT: OK. The third type of hoax?
SALTZMAN: The third type of hoax is the warning of the bad virus. And this one could be a little bit malicious because one of the most popular (hoaxes) tells you to remove a file that's on your computer. The e-mail usually reads something like, "Hey, there's this virus that's going on out there and if you've got this file on your computer, you're infected so you must remove this file." Well, it turns out that any Windows-based computer has this file. It tells you to remove that file. If you delete it, your Windows might not work properly.
BURKHARDT: What's the fourth kind of hoax?
SALTZMAN: The next one is what we would call chain mail. And this is an example saying, "At 10:30 PM EST today, go outside of your home and light a candle and NASA is taking a picture from space. Pass it on to as many people as possible." This was just made up by somebody. Why they made it up, nobody knows. But they're saying go outside, light a candle at 10:30, they're taking a picture, it's a memorial for the World Trade Center victims.
BURKHARDT: So, where is this picture from NASA?
SALTZMAN: Yeah, exactly. Where is it? Again, it's another example of a hoax.
BURKHARDT: OK, so then what can we do to protect ourselves?
SALTZMAN: There are a few things. Number one, use common sense. You're not going to get something for nothing. The second thing is to be educated. Go to Web sites that will tell you which e-mails are hoaxes.
BURKHARDT: There are such Web sites out there?
SALTZMAN: Yes, vmyths.com outlines the latest viruses and hoaxes that are surfacing in cyberspace. There is also hoaxbusters.org. They're here to warn people about these hoaxes. Some antivirus Web sites such as Norton or Symantec also provide information about current hoaxes.
BURKHARDT: So, somebody's out there monitoring all these things?
SALTZMAN: That's right. Now, keep in mind hoaxes are not illegal, because they're not really damaging or they're not scamming people out of money. There's really nothing you can do other than use common sense.
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