How to tell if a forwarded email is a hoax

Important warning! Please forward to everyone you know!

I assume that people reading my weblog are pretty tech-savvy. Otherwise, they'd find most of what I write pretty boring. (That's why no one in my family reads it.) The following advice will look like common sense to most of you, but after getting an email with a subject header of "Fw: FW: Fw: I M P O R T A N T W A R N I NG ! ! ! ! ! !" from a family member today, I thought I'd write this out in case it's useful to anyone. You can send the URL to anyone who sends you such an email to save yourself some typing.

Email that encourages you to forward it to lots of people shouldn't be, for the same reason that spam is bad. These emails are often Dire Warnings that describe simple actions that can prevent or cause bad health problems—for example, that you should clean off the top of your soda cans before opening them to avoid death from dried rat urine, or that you should be careful about microwaving food with certain brands of plastic wrap because some guy on the Today Show said that it would cause cancer. (The latter was actually forwarded by a family friend who is a doctor, and a cynical one at that.)

When I receive any email that encourages its recipients to forward it to everyone they know, I pick a few phrases that distinguish it from other emails (this morning, it was "life is beautiful" and "power point") and do a Google search. Today's search quickly revealed that this morning's email was a hoax that had been forwarded around for over five years.

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Your Google search may get a hit on, an urban legends clearing house that tracks such things. This morning's email finished with "PASS IT ON IMMEDIATELY! THIS HAS BEEN CON FIRMED [sic] BY SNOPES", which I thought was an interesting touch. (Over-use of upper-case letters adds more points to the "possible hoax" score.) Snopes actually identifies the "life is beautiful" email as a hoax, so this addition to the forwarded email reveals it as the work of a deliberate hoaxer.

Let's not help these people by forwarding their emails. Remember: whenever you get an email encouraging you to forward it to lots of people, do a web search on a few phrases from it that won't come up in other emails before adding more clutter to your friends' and family's email.