The Hoax Stops Here

The Hoax Stops Here

The scenario is all too familiar: A friend forwards a letter from a friend of a friend. The message begins, “This is not a hoax!” then tells a heart-rending tale of a dying child who needs you to keep his name circulating around the Internet, or warns you about the “Goodtimes” virus, bananas infected with flesh-eating bacteria, or pending government legislation — and it’s all fiction. So are the promises that large corporations will pay you, or donate money to charity, for each person to whom you forward an e-mail.

E-mail hoaxes are tempting to believe, especially when they come from someone you trust, who heard it from someone somewhere down the line with “authority.” According to the Department of Energy’s Computer Incident Advisory Capability (CIAC) HoaxBusters Website (, there are more than 200 e-mail hoaxes currently in circulation and the topics are almost as diverse as their numbers. But what they have in common is that nearly all include a request, plea, promised reward, or demand to “forward this letter to everyone you know.” One current hoaxer even claims that some useless gibberish in his e-mail is code that can track the letters he sends, and that he will kill anyone who doesn’t forward them.

“A hoax may create unnecessary concern or anguish,” says Jack Smith, information systems security officer for CIAC. The Website describes numerous types of hoaxes and helps recipients identify and dismiss worrisome e-mails as fiction. A table at the CIAC Website shows the propagation of one hoax e-mailed to 10 people, who in turn pass it on to 10 more people, and so on. It takes only six generations of the letter going to 10 people to multiply to 1 million e-mails (see “The Risk & Cost of Hoaxes,” chart).

Your e-mail inbox might contain more ordinary spam or scams than hoaxes, but sending on just one e-mail hoax has an extreme self-perpetuating effect on the Internet. Moreover, these hoaxes add to the burden on your company’s e-mail server, which can cost a company untold hours of downtime. Additionally, employees who become alarmed or upset by what they read will stop working to forward the message and reply to responses. “Spread within a company, a hoax may cause a loss of [productivity] as workers discuss the hoax,” says Smith. While analysts have not quantified the cost to businesses, the CIAC Website estimates that if everyone on the Internet received one hoax message and spent one minute reading and discarding it, the cost would be roughly $41.7 million.

Emma Agnew, vice president of Unique Staffing, a temporary staffing, HR consulting, and executive recruiting firm in Memphis, Tennessee, says, “I don’t respond to [hoaxes] at all. If I don’t recognize the person [sending] the e-mail, I don’t even open it. Occasionally, I will get forwarded mail from people I know, but I don’t forward anything.”

Joseph Stovall, owner of Joseph Stovall and Associates, an insurance, accounting, and financial consulting firm in Memphis, avoids the problem with a strict policy: “I