E-mail hoaxes are spreading like a computer virus

Many Americans accept unbelievable tales and offers as the truth

August 20, 1999|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- Wake up, America!

Movie-theater seats are being booby-trapped with HIV-infected needles!

The post office is going to start taxing your e-mail correspondence!

You're on the verge of winning a trip to Disney World, a six-pack of beer and clothing from the Gap, but you must act now!

Sounds unbelievable, doesn't it?

So why would so many people accept such incredible statements at face value? Because they came across on e-mail.

Hoaxes, chain letters and urban myths have been around a long time, but e-mail imbues them with a certain legitimacy and spreads them faster than a bad rash.

Just ask any Internet expert and they'll tell you: In this high-tech world, Americans have become particularly susceptible to the "gullibility virus," a stubborn strain that weakens a person's ability to question what they read on e-mail, no matter how outrageous, and compels them to e-mail copies of dubious tales to their friends and acquaintances.

Psychologists and sociologists theorize that naivete plays a big role; e-mail remains new enough, so many people trust it.

"People see [computer technology] as accurate and scientific," said Steven Janke, professor of mathematics at Colorado College. "And it is so pervasive, it's become the last word in so much of our lives."

If we believe a computer can give us the correct balance in our bank account, why not believe what our e-mail says? Janke asks.

Even sophisticated users get caught up in hoaxes, said Mark Walther, a computer expert and systems administrator for a Colorado military technology contractor.

"They are usually pretty hokey and easy to spot," said Walther. But that doesn't stop computer-savvy people from being fooled, he said.

E-mail hoaxes are so rampant that the U.S. Department of Energy's Computer Incident Advisory Capability has complained it can't do its job: track dangerous computer viruses.

"At CIAC, we find that we are spending much more time debunking hoaxes than handling real virus incidents," the agency says on its Web site.

Perhaps it's the nature of the beast, but computer virus warnings lead the list of e-mail hoaxes, says the CIAC.

Some have been around so long that they are again making the rounds after a long hiatus -- sort of like the resurgence of tuberculosis. It's the same illness, just more resistant.

Irina and Good Times are good examples. Both start with a warning to not read the e-mail, punctuated with exclamation points and capital letters. Doing so will result in all kinds of disasters to your hard drive, they say. Others claim they will demagnetize floppy disks near the computer and melt hardware. One spoof threatened it could change the temperature of your freezer.

But recycled hoaxes aren't limited to computer-virus warnings. Many e-mail hoaxes hark back to the "old days," when people sent chain letters via snail mail or spread urban myths by talking to each other.

Then there are the giveaway e-mails, which are high-tech versions of the chain letter that will bring good luck, bad luck, riches, a new car or $10.

Another modern take on an old trick: the business-bashing hoax. In one old story, the chief executive of Procter & Gamble appeared on the now-canceled "Phil Donahue Show" declaring that he is a worshiper of the devil. In the latest e-mail versions, he appears on "Oprah" or "Sally Jesse Raphael" with his confession.

From the "be afraid, be very afraid" category come the e-mails that warn of bodily harm: the people who are putting HIV-infected needles into movie-theater seats; the kidney-theft ring that drugs unsuspecting victims, and -- with surgical precision -- removes a kidney, then leaves a phone near the victim with a note to call 911.

No technology is available that can count how many of an e-mail message is in circulation at one time. Tracking them is close to impossible.

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