Missing children who are not missing, a warning of e-mail postage fees, human viruses spread by blue sponges—these are all hoaxes. Hoaxes, lies, tricks, tall-tales, urban legends, or whatever name one chooses to call them, have been a part of human civilization from the beginning. From ‘the little girl who cried wolf’ to the promised apocalypse in the year 2000, people have, in the past, been fooled, entertained, and scared by hoaxes; but now, in this modern age of the internet, hoaxes have reached a new height. The internet has made is far easier for a hoax to be made and also to be spread. Whereas in the past they were relatively harmless and small because of the lack of communication, these days anyone with access to the internet can create and spread an elaborate hoax in a matter of minuets to tens of thousands of people.
Sure, some, such as the hoax reported a snopes.com—a hoax detecting website—about the man who dies in his sleep from his own farts, seem innocent enough. Some might even get you a free laugh; but besides giving you the occasional laugh, most of those harmless ones usually turn out to be nothing more than junk-mail.
The more serious hoaxes can be more than junk-mail: they can evoke fear in you. There are many such hoaxes being spread across the internet this very moment. For example Walt Howe, on his webpage “Hoaxes and Urban Legends,” writes about the “Shampoos Cause Cancer” chain letters. He says they are “going around warning about shampoos containing the foaming agent sodium laureth sulfate, claimed to be a carcinogen. Its pseudo-scientific text claims that cancer rates have increased from 1 in 8000 to 1 in 3 in 10 years, which is not true, and it refers to stopping the nonexistent ‘cancer virus’.” Reading such and email—if not knowing it to be false—could cause a life altering level of fear: one would probably stop purchasing and using shampoo, and then start smelling, leading to unemployment and divorce!
In addition to being scared into life altering changes, some internet hoaxes can lead money loss and financial difficulties for the victim. According to snopes.com, phishing, a term referring to “the on-line imitation of a company….with the intent of fooling unsuspecting users into divulging personal information,” can be devastating to the bank-account of a victim of such a hoax. Some of the information taken from the victim of a phishing hoax includes passwords, credit card numbers, and PINs. Luckily sites such as Snopes.com warns people of such danger. They even have a list of the most common phishing hoaxes currently in circulation. Here they are:
E-mail claims your Citibank ATM/Debit card PIN must be updated due to "a large number of identity theft attempts."
E-mail claims auction site eBay is sending out suspension notices via e-mail and asking customers to verify their account information.
E-mail claims auction site eBay is sending out notices requesting that users update their account information.
E-mail claims the FDIC insurance on your bank account has been cancelled by the Department of Homeland Security for violations of the Patriot Act.
E-mail pretends to be the IRS sending out e-mails directing taxpayers to a web form to use to obtain tax refunds.
E-mail from the IRS offers $80 to recipients who complete "member satisfaction surveys."
- U.S. Bank
E-mail claims your account at U.S. Bank has been suspended.
E-mail claims your account at U.S. Bank needs to be reactivated due to a technical update.
- SunTrust Bank
E-mail claims SunTrust Bank is asking customers to verify their account details due to "a large number of identity theft attempts."
E-mail claims Wells Fargo is sending out e-mails requesting personal information as part of their "regular update and verification of the Wells Fargo ATM Service."
- Social Security Administration (SSA)
E-mail claims the Social Security Administration is requiring benefits recipients to register for passwords and provide their banking information.
Sites such as snopes.com are crucial in helping unknowing internet users in identifying and avoiding hoaxes that invoke fear, steal money, and pollute e-mails. In addition to listing the popular and widely spread hoaxes currently in circulation, such websites also provide advice in spotting hoaxes that may not yet be listed. For example, at nonprofit.net, a site, like snopes.com, dedicated to spotting hoaxes, says:
1) If you get a message, or see a posting on Usenet that seems like it should be shared with LOTS of people, **DON`T SEND IT** unless either you KNOW the message is true, you can authenticate their identity (through PGP or some other system), or you know the sender personally, and know they would have written this message. The more urgent it sounds, the more skeptical you should be. Even if you think it might be true, let someone else spread it.
2) If you really want to send it, **ALWAYS CHECK WITH THE ORIGINATOR** before forwarding it! This is the best way to tell a hoax or a prank. Just reply to the first sender, and ask them if it is true. If they can't tell you, then don't send it! Most pranks and hoaxes have forged headers and signatures, and when you try and verify the validity of the message, you will find that the address is not valid. Even if the originator is the prankster, and tells you to go ahead, at least they can be caught and dealt with. If this seems like too much of a bother, than it is not that important and you should not send it anyway.
3) If the message tells you to do something, especially if that something involves changing in your account or sending a file or message over the network, **CHECK WITH SOMEONE KNOWLEDGEABLE THAT YOU CAN TRUST**. Imagine you received a package in your real homes mailbox asking you to place your house keys in the return envelope provided, and mail them to a post office box. Would you comply? People fall for the computer version of this all the time.
4) If you see or get something that really makes you angry, remember *** YOU CAN'T BE SURE WHO SENT IT!!** It is very very easy to frame someone with an e-mail message or Usenet post. All someone has to do is sit at their computer when the victim is away from the keyboard. But hackers can be much more sophisticated. They can forge any message to make it appear from anyone.
5)Chain e-mail and Pyramid posts on Usenet are a scam, and most often, they are a crime. ANY SCHEME THAT INVOLVES REAL MAIL AT ANY POINT CAN BE ILLEGAL. If you forward one, you will be blasted with hundreds of angry messages in reply. But if you see one, remember that you can't really be sure who sent it!
6)Finally, note that when April 1st comes up, the Net will be awash in phony messages, forged return addresses, pranks, and general amusing nonsense. The best thing to do is to read them and have a good laugh. Baring that, ignore any message from anyone you don't know, and ignore any message from anyone that asks you to do something.”