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-- Never Cry Wolf
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"
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
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,
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 email@example.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
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Tags: E-commerce and Internet