Be on the lookout for e-mail myths
Last month, I received an e-mail from my mother about a once-in-a-lifetime chance to view Mars. The e-mail stated that “… Earth is catching up with Mars in an encounter that will culminate in the closest approach between the two planets in recorded history. … The encounter will culminate on August 27th when Mars comes to within 34,649,589 miles of Earth …” The message concluded by urging that the reader “share this with your children and grandchildren.” I thought, wow, what a great opportunity! But then it occurred to me that if this were true, I surely would have heard about this important event in the mainstream media. I did a little research on NASA’s website, and found out that the Mars encounter was indeed true – in 2003! Yet, the e-mail had been circulated to probably millions as a current fact. Even worse, a week later, the teachers at my kids’ school sent home a flyer informing the kids and their families of this same important “current” event. They’d obviously heard about the event from an e-mail.
We’ve all become accustomed to turning to the internet as a valuable source of information, and with good reason. But when it comes to the information that you receive in forwarded e-mails, beware. Much of it belongs in the category of “e-mail hoaxes.” According to HowStuffWorks.com, hoaxes and urban legends are generally characterized by some combination of humor, horror, warning, embarrassment, morality or appeal to empathy. Fortunately, the folks at about.com have put together some ways to spot the culprits. The following are a few of their more important tips:– Note whether the e-mail was actually written by the person who sent it. If no one has signed their name, be skeptical.– Check whether the message includes phrases such as ‘Forward this to everyone you know,’ a definite red flag.
— Look for statements like ‘This is NOT a hoax’ or ‘This is NOT an urban legend.’ Usually this means the exact opposite.– Watch for overly emphatic language, as well as frequent use of uppercase letters and multiple exclamation points.– If the text seems aimed more at persuading than informing the reader, be suspicious. — As in the case of the Mars spotting, if the message claims to be imparting extremely important information that you’ve not heard of elsewhere, be suspicious.– Look for logical inconsistencies, violations of common sense and blatantly false claims.
— Check for references to outside sources. Hoaxes don’t typically cite verifiable evidence, nor link to websites where you can find out more.There are a variety of great sites whose purpose is to debunk e-mail hoaxes and urban legends. The Computer Incident Advisory Capability (CIAC), part of the U.S. Department of Energy, operates a site called HoaxBusters at http://hoaxbusters.ciac.org. You’ll want to also take a peek at snopes.com, vmyths.com and urbanlegends.about.com. Each will give you a listing of the latest, greatest hoaxes and legends, as well as tips and information about how to spot the culprits. You can even submit suspicious e-mails you’ve received.E-mail comments and questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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