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Never Cry Wolf

By Ed Churnside

Once again, I feel like a fool. I sent a valid looking Email alert to half the Internet and it turned out to be a fake. Have you been caught? I bet you have. Do you remember the "Good Times" virus? At first sight these Emails may seem like a minor problem; a cheap laugh; a practical joke. However, just as water slowly running will wear away a mountain, these phony alerts are eroding the power of the Internet.

The one thing that separates the Internet community from the community at large is that we react. While the masses may approve of a policy or disapprove of a law, they tend to remain silent. The Internet community, on the other hand, will take arms against perceived injustice. In this the weapon if choice is Email and the offenders will soon find themselves swept away by a flood of protest. It is probably the only way we can protect ourselves against the evil influence of corporate "soft" money.

Bogus Emails are a menace. These false alerts dull our reflexes and inhibit our ability to react. We all know the fable of "the boy who cried wolf." These phony causes are cries of wolf, and when a true problem arises, we, like the shepherds of the fable, may fail to defend our sheep.

How can we protect ourselves against these false alerts? A valid Internet alert requires three things: a return Email address, a reference URL and a date. If you are creating an alert you must include them. If you are passing an alert along you must check them. Without them, or other external verification, you must assume the mail to be fake.

A valid Email address must be included in the body of the letter. You cannot just rely on the address in your "From:" field. As the Email is passed around the Internet it will eventually be deleted and forgotten. A Yahoo, Hotmail or other free address will simply not do. Anyone can set one of these up in a moment and claim to be the Queen of Sheba.

A reference URL is important too. Just about anything we need to know about will be posted somewhere. The most likely source for this information is one of the many web news services, but some special issues like fighting spam or Internet free speech have their own sites. The U.S. Department of Energy Internet Hoax Page is also a good place to find out about any current hoaxes.

Finally a date or, better yet, an expiry date should be included in any web alert. Remember, the original send date will be lost as the missal weaves its way across the web. It is important to know when to stop reacting to an alert. These things tend to have a life of their own and often continue for months after the issue is resolved. The most recent mistake I made was a valid alert -- valid, that is, about 8 months ago.

In his article "Hoax, They're out to get you on the Net", Matthew Broersma says:

Another way to tell truth from fiction in the Email world is simply by paying attention to the way the message is written. Konrad Roeder, a systems engineer and Internet columnist, points out that every hoax Email exists primarily to replicate itself as many times as possible, and therefore, it will always include two elements: first, it will provoke an emotional response, and second, it will urge readers to act on their emotions by forwarding the message to as many people as possible.

"In a sense, what's happening is it's a thought virus," Roeder said. "They affect you, making you feel something, and then get you to pass (the message) on to other people."

Let me share an Email I received from a close friend recently:

We are a fourth grade class at Little Prairie School in Windtunnel, Illinois. Our class has 16 boys and 7 girls. Our school has 360 students. We decided to map an Email project for our school because we were curious to see how far Email can travel by Internet in the United States. Our project will last just two months, beginning January 22, 1999 and ending March 22, 1999

We would like your help. We ask that:

1. If you receive our Email letter, could you Email our class back telling us your location.

2. Also, please send our class letter on to 2 more people.

Our Email address is lpsfourthgrade@yahoo.com

Is this letter valid? I do not know but there are warning signs. Although the period was about 2 months, I received it just 2 days before the deadline and the earliest recipient I could find was just 2 days earlier. This timeline prevents checking its validity via US Snail. There is no URL reference even though most schools have a web page, especially a school that would run this type of experiment. This teacher has not given us his or her name. Finally, the clincher for me, is that the only address is at Yahoo.com. Not only is this a fly-by- night address but this type of letter is specifically banned by Yahoo's rules of conduct. So, what's the verdict? Is this just some young teacher showing her web inexperience? Perhaps, but it could also be a savvy spammer using our vulnerability to children to build his mailing list. There were close to 200 names on the copy I received -- you be the judge.

One final note to help us in the fight against spam: When you send letters, even valid letters, out to a large group of people, you never know where they will end up. Someone down the pipeline may inadvertently forward it to a spammer, giving them a list of all your friends. Always include your mailing list under the "BCC:" field not the "To:" field. BCC -- Blind Carbon Copy -- will still distribute your mail, but no-one who receives it will see any mail address but their own.


Hoax! They're out to get you on the Net By Matthew Broersma. October 25, 1997 12:29 PM PST ZDNN

Some known hoaxes:

A.I.D.S. Hoax, AOL Riot June 1,1998, AOL V4.0 Cookie, AOL4FREE, Bill Gates Hoax, Bud Frogs Screen Saver, Death Ray, Deeyenda, Disney Giveaway Hoax, E-mail or get a Virus, Ghost PENPAL GREETINGS!, Good Times Spoof, Good Times, Internet Access Charge, Internet Cleanup Day, Irina, Join the Crew, Make Money Fast, NaughtyRobot, PKZ300, WIN A HOLIDAY.


Ed Churnside is a freelance writer, programmer and web designer. While he has written articles on subjects as diverse as Internet etiquette, astronomy, woodworking and bunnies, Ed, a self-confessed computer wizard, is probably best unknown for his programming. "About 50% of Americans have used programs I designed," he says enigmatically and grins. Winner of the prestigious Atari Consumer Products Award, Ed now spends his time writing articles and short fiction, programming shareware and freeware, and maintaining several web sites. He can be reached at Wulf@DragonQuest.com or via his website at http://www.DragonQuest.com

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Tags: E-commerce and Internet



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