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Last Updated: 29-Oct-2013
Information Technology Services
Information Technology Services: Hoaxes

What is a Virus/E-Mail Hoax?

If you ave you ever received an e-mail message that includes something like the following...

  • A warning of a new virus that you should send on to everyone you know.
  • A warning of a scam that you should send on to everyone you know.
  • A petition to help the needy or some cause that wants you to forward it on to those who might be interested.
  • A get-rich-quick scheme that claims if you forward on the message you'll receive money for each time it's forwarded.
  • A claim that for each email sent someone in need will be helped by another organization.

...then you've received a hoax. These five scenarios account for almost all the virus and e-mail hoaxes you will see, and in almost all cases anything that follows any of these guidelines is a hoax, false, or an outdated petition that is just "floating" around the Internet.

Check It Out!

If you receive a message following one of the above scenarios, or anything you're suspicious of, you should check it out.

Symantec's AntiVirus Research Center Virus Hoax Page
(Symantec makes Norton AntiVirus)

McAfee's Virus Hoax Listings

Sophos Anti-Virus

F-Secure (formerly Datafellows)

Non-Profit Anti-Hoax Site

Links for more resources for hoaxes and urban legends: Computer virus myths, hoaxes, urban legends

ScamBusters Urban Legends Reference Pages

A list of Virus Hoax Sites from Yahoo

What to look for

  •  Verify the original date the message was created and sent. A line similar to "This information came from Microsoft yesterday morning." is a tip off. When was "yesterday"?
  • Verify the original sender of the message. "Please pass it on to anyone you know who has access to the Internet." Anything that asks you to "pass it on to anyone you know who has access to the Internet" is a really big flag. Major companies such as Microsoft, AOL, etc., are the last people who are going to ask you to forward on e-mail to everyone you know. This goes against standard Internet policies and good etiquette. This just clogs up storage, networks, and wastes everyone's time.
  • Verify any quotes made by any organizations mentioned with specific URL's (web addresses) that backup the claims made in the message. "AOL has confirmed how dangerous it is..." Really? If AOL had confirmed anything they would certainly have a URL with this statement. AOL is not an official virus reporting agency. You want to see things like CERT, Symantec, McAfee, F-PROT, etc [see Check It Out! on this page].
  • If the e-mail is for a cause be able to verify the date of any action mentioned and/or the specific piece of legislation that is mentioned.

In general, it is considered very bad form to forward a message on to a large number of people. Any e-mail that is from an organization trying to effect a change should refer to a specific URL where you can go to sign a petition or to make your voice heard. The problem with the Internet is that even if the request is legitimate the message is likely to circulate for months, if not years, after the message's intended date has passed.

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Why are Hoaxes a Problem?
Imagine if you will, someone receives a message and they forward that one message to 15 people, and each of them forwards to 15 other people, and so on. In just four generations, the process will have produced over 50,000 wasted messages! In a matter of minutes you will have in essence wasted 50,000 people's time, perhaps spread fear or panic in them, and as a bonus, helped to slow down the Internet in the process.

Remember: if you aren't sure if a message is real, you can check the various sites listed on this page, or you can consult an ITS consultant and ask if the message is true.

Tip: It's impossible to track an email as it's forwarded. So... don't forward that message!
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