How To Spot An Internet Hoax

Cyber-sleuths can stem the tide of annoying Net-spiracies

They pop up in Usenet newsgroups from supposedly informed sources or slide into your e-mail box from well-meaning friends. The message begins with a dire warning: a pending modem tax, a virus that’s supposedly passed on by reading a particular plain-text email. Sometimes it’s a pyramid scheme that is guaranteed to make you thousands of dollars without raising a finger. Internet hoaxes are not only annoying, they gobble up precious Internet bandwidth that could be put to better use.

Often a hoax declares itself by shouting, “This is not a hoax!” followed by a startling prediction of doom, perhaps some technical jargon, and a reference to a quasi-authority–”This came from a friend of a friend who is a lawyer,” or “who works at (X large company or Y government agency).” The message ends with the telltale request: “Pass this message on to everyone you know.” There may also be a request to contact a third party, such as the Federal Communications Commission (“Tell them we don’t want a modem tax!”) or a dying person whom you don’t know (“He needs messages of encouragement!”). But if you do the math–five friends telling five friends telling five friends–you’ll see that the third-party recipient quickly becomes the victim of an e-mail flood that can cripple a small mail server and cost the victim his Internet account.

More harm? Internet hoaxes cost everyone’s network or Internet service providers (ISPs) by clogging the bandwith with unnecessary transmissions. ISPs can’t gauge the actual cost in hardware and bandwidth, since they don’t read user mail, but they know it costs them in technical support to answer user concerns. America Online has “Reach Out” and “Virus Update” areas for users to get immediate valid information. AOL itself was recently the target of a hoax claiming the service read information from users’ hard drives. “The biggest cost is the way (hoaxes) impact our members’ online experience,” says AOL spokesperson Rich D’Amato.

William J. Orvis, security specialist with the U.S. Department of Energy’s Computer Incident Advisory Capability (CIAC) Team (http://ciac.llnl.gov/ciac/ciachoaxes.html), says hoaxes may not hurt your machine, but “they do hurt your network. Mail machines can be completely filled up.”

There are other costs, too, says Rob Rosenberger, Web master of the Computer Virus Myths Home Page (http://kumite.com/myths/). He recalls one man who erased his hard disk and lost everything (with no backups) because he believed a virus hoax.

What can you do?Don’t pass hoaxes on. When users pass on hoaxes, the effect itself is a lot like a virus-tying up resources with useless information.

How can you tell? Orvis says the request, “Send this to all your friends,” is a giveaway. Look up specific hoaxes at the CIAC Internet Hoaxes Page (http://ciac.llnl. gov/ciac/CIAC Hoaxes. html).
If the message warns about a bad piece of legislation, there should be a bill number, House resolution (HR) number or its equivalent recorded with the appropriate governing body. Follow up on these numbers through the appropriate Capitol Web page.

Look very critically at messages that ask you to write to

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