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Email and virus hoaxes are messages that contain information that is mostly, if not completely, untrue. Like spam, these messages are quite annoying. Unlike spam, they are forwarded to us by friends and family. This is where the real problem lies. We tend to believe what we read, especially if someone we know sends it to us. In addition, it is our nature to want to help others, especially our friends; so, we feel good when we pass on what seems like useful information. These factors, coupled with the ease at which we can forward a message to all of our friends, have caused email hoaxes to spread rapidly.

Those who distribute hoax messages want the hoax to spread as quickly as possible to as many people as possible. Why? It might simply be curiosity for seeing how far their message will go. Or, perhaps the writer is using the hoax to attack an individual or organization, or to promote an idea. Whatever the reason, the goal is to spread the hoax far and wide.

Recognizing Email Hoaxes

The biggest clue that an email is a hoax is that you are asked to “Forward this message to everyone you know”, or “Send this message to five people and you will have good luck”. Whatever the wording, if the intention is to motivate you to forward the message to others, it is most likely a hoax.

Hoax Components

While hoaxes can vary widely, they do have some common attributes. There are generally three parts to a hoax:

  • Hook – The hook is usually found in the subject. It might be “Free Gift Certificates”, “Dangerous New Virus”, or simply “IMPORTANT: Please Read”. The hook is designed to get your attention so that you will read the rest of the message.
  • Threat – The threat is the specific hoax information. It is the lie or half-truth that is the main content of the hoax. To make people more likely to believe the threat, the hoax writer often uses technical jargon, and will sometimes make up an official sounding source. The threat is written to provoke an emotional reaction like fear, anger, sympathy, or greed, in order to make us more likely to act on the request.
  • Request – The Request is what the email asks you to do. The hoax might be a chain letter that asks you to send a dollar to five people on a list. Or, it might instruct you to send a complaint to some organization, or simply to forward the message to your family and friends to inform them of the supposed threat.

If you get an email that you think may be a hoax, you can search the web sites below for the subject or threat described in the email. You may also find it helpful to research web sites published by government offices and other reputable research organizations. If you do find that the message is a hoax, send the information back to the person who forwarded the email to you and make them aware of the hoax. They may be a little embarrassed for forwarding something untrue, but the more people who learn about hoaxes (and as a result do not forward them) the fewer we will all get.

Recognizing Virus Hoaxes

There are a lot of viruses lurking on the Internet. But some don’t really exist at all. Virus hoaxes, messages that claim to inform you of dangerous, undetectable viruses hidden in your computer, are more than mere annoyances. These messages may lead some users to routinely ignore all virus warning messages, leaving them vulnerable to a genuine, destructive virus.

Next time you receive an urgent virus warning message, use these tips to determine if a virus warning is valid or a hoax:

  • What is the source of the email? If it came from your best friend’s aunt, who received it from her daughter, who got it from her husband’s tennis pro’s mechanic, who supposedly got it from a security expert at IBM, then it is probably a hoax.
  • Does the warning tell you to forward the message to everyone you know? A valid virus warning will not ask you to forward the message to others, since this is a known method for spreading virus hoaxes.
  • Does the warning refer you to a known security Web site? Valid warnings will refer you to the web site of a reputable security organization (such as cert.org) or an anti-virus company (such as McAfee or Panda Software). The Web site referenced should contain specific information about the virus mentioned in the email.

Remember, never open an email attachment unless you know what it is-even if it’s from someone you know and trust. To illustrate just how harmful virus hoaxes can be, consider this example:

Virus Warning: SULFNBK.EXE
This email claims that you may already have a virus. It tells you to look for a file on your computer called SULFNBK.EXE, and even tells you where to find it. You are told to delete the file because it is supposedly a terrible virus that will wipe out all other files on your hard drive on a certain date.

Many people were fooled by this hoax. They dutifully followed the instructions, found the file and deleted it. In an attempt to protect their friends, they also forwarded the message to everyone they knew (as the email requested). Unfortunately, the file SULFNBK.EXE is a normal component of the Windows operating system used to backup and restore long file names. Finding it on your PC does not necessarily mean that it is a virus.

An Important Note on Virus Hoaxes

We do not want our customers to ignore a valid virus warning from us, or from another reliable source. If you think you have received a hoax virus warning and are unable to confirm or deny the veracity of the message on your own, please contact technical support before opening any attachment or following any instructions in the message.