WEEKLY WEB WATCH: Online hoaxes both irritate and fascinate, but please don’t fwd

Last week’s story about the phony auction of human eggs from ’beautiful, intelligent women’ was just the latest in a proud tradition of Internet hoaxes. It took a lot of people in, but at least it had a purpose - to gain traffic for a porn web site.

Last week’s story about the phony auction of human eggs from ’beautiful, intelligent women’ was just the latest in a proud tradition of Internet hoaxes. It took a lot of people in, but at least it had a purpose - to gain traffic for a porn web site.

Last week’s story about the phony auction of human eggs from

’beautiful, intelligent women’ was just the latest in a proud tradition

of Internet hoaxes. It took a lot of people in, but at least it had a

purpose - to gain traffic for a porn web site.



Most Internet hoaxes don’t seem to have much purpose beyond spreading

chain letters. They’re inventive and it’s fascinating, and sometimes

rather horrifying, to watch them spread, much as you’d watch the latest

flu epidemic spreading.



And without exception, they involve the PR departments of companies they

mention in a lot of extra, unplanned work.



Online greeting card provider Blue Mountain Arts, was forced to issue a

statement saying, ’There is no way that bluemountain.com can spread a

virus. When someone sends or receives cards from our site, they do not

actually download to their computer any file that might contain a

virus.’



Last month, Honda dealers around the country had to field calls from

people claiming their free cars for forwarding an e-mail to all their

friends and colleagues (www.honda.com/emailhoax.html). Before that,

there was the chain letter warning that AOL’s latest software gave the

company access to data on any subscriber’s hard drive.



There are many variations on this dark, satanic corporation theme,

usually alleging some outrageous invasion of privacy. When it comes to

companies as seemingly all-powerful as AOL and, above all, Microsoft,

people will believe anything.



It seems to have started with one purporting to be from Bill Gates

himself: ’Hello everyone. My name is Bill Gates. Here at Microsoft we

have just compiled an e-mail tracing program that tracks everyone to

whom this message is forwarded to. It does this through a unique IP

(Internet Protocol) address log-book database. We are experimenting with

this and need your help. Forward this to everyone you know and if it

reaches 1000 people everyone on the list will receive dollars 1000 and a

copy of Windows98 at my expense. Enjoy.’



Most of the latest spate of e-mail hoaxes are variations on this ’e-mail

tracking’ fiction. Remember the ’free clothes from the Gap’ offer? I

received it at least twice. Here’s some of what it said: ’The Gap has

introduced a new e-mail tracking system to determine who has the most

loyal followers. This e-mail is a beta test of the new clothing line and

Gap has generously offered to compensate those who participate in the

testing process. For each person you send this e-mail to, you will be

given a pair of cargo pants. For every person they give it to, you will

be given an additional Hawaiian print T-shirt, for every person they

send it to, you will receive a fisherman’s hat!’



There was the IBM computer give-away, the free six-packs from Miller for

the millennium, and many others, all usefully listed on

urbanlegends.about.com. There is also a list on a site run by the US

Department of Energy Computer Incident Advisory Committee

(ciac.llnl.gov/ciac/CIAC-Hoaxes.html), together with some history and

anatomy of Internet hoaxes.



Such e-mail chain letters are as annoying as they are fascinating. They

harm, or at the very least, inconvenience, the companies whose names

they use. There is almost nothing you can do about them, except be alert

and try to counter the rumors when they start. It is pretty much

impossible to trace their origin, since they can sometimes circulate for

years. And every person who passes one on helps to magnify the

annoyance.



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