When a hoax is a hoax

What's worse than the Melissa virus? Probably about half of the e-mail currently circulating the Internet. Why? Because most are pranks, hoaxes, urban legends or scams. (And remember, Melissa went to a maximum of 50 people on your address book, there is no stopping someone from sending an e-mail to thousands of recipients.) These annoyances can be more irritating than spam, fray e-mail friendships, and even damage the people they are supposedly trying to help, such as "the child dying of cancer" hoax. (One of the cruellest, this e-mail asks people to send an e-mail or 10 cents to a hospital to help a dying child. Unfortunately, it is a hoax and valuable hospital resources are required to filter out all the junk mail.)The following three sites have all the information you need to determine if your e-mail is real, and range from the amusing and strange to the basic scam. If you're interested, it's also worth using the newsgroup alt.folklore.urban.

Even if you don't visit these sites soon, here is an important piece of advice: if you receive an e-mail and you want to send it immediately to as many people as possible, then it is probably a hoax.

Urban Legends & Folklore

http://urbanlegends.miningco.com

The best site for quickly revealing e-mail hoaxes: it strongly focuses on the Internet aspect of urban myths. Sometimes it's hard to believe that people fall for many of these myths, that is until you receive an e-mail from a friend swearing that the attached story is true and that if you forward it on to another 100 people, you can all get a free six-pack of VB.

Urban Legends & Folklore has a section dedicated to virus hoaxes, so look it up before spooking your friends (believe me they won't appreciate getting a copy of a 12-month-old virus hoax). The site has a search engine for tracking down the latest hoax, or the oldest urban myth, dusted off, polished and recycled on the Internet.

After you've browsed all the various topics, you can subscribe to the regular newsletter to get a hold of the latest myths before they start appearing in your in-box.

The Urban Legends Reference Page

http://www.snopes.com

Almost a shrine to urban myths, this site was probably a significant source of information for the horror flick film Urban Legend. All myths, old and new, are represented here, including some very amusing and strange happenings.

The authors of this site research each myth and grade them as false, true or undetermined. They even attempt to track the history of each story back to when it first appeared, and report variations. After a while, it is not surprising that some people believe myths -- the small percentage that prove true can seem just as bizarre as the false ones (yep, there was pornography in an animated Disney film).

The easiest lesson to learn from this site is that the more perfect the structure of the story, the less likely it is to be true.

Internet ScamBusters

http://www.scambusters.com

This site gets a bit more serious. In addition to talking about the usual myths, legends and hoaxes, it goes into great detail about scams where people are trying to improperly gain information such as your credit card numbers, passwords or other personal details.

I wouldn't give my credit card details to someone who knocks on my door, so I wouldn't do it via the Internet. Unfortunately, newbies and technophobes are easy prey. Internet ScamBusters shows how to avoid being conned and what to do next. The site also has tips for reducing spam and advice on what to do if your company is being defamed or misrepresented.

It's not all gloom, but if you are ever introducing someone to the Internet, this should be one of the first sites to bookmark.

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Scott Mendham

PC World
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