Fact Or Fiction? Telling Them Apart Can Be Hard On The Net

There's nothing more annoying -- or potentially damaging -- than being taken in by a hoax, a fraud or a scam. Several such irritations show up on the Internet with annoying regularity; here's Herald's guide to the hoaxes.

Make Money Fast!

There are entirely too many people online whose first post -- and sometimes their last -- to the Internet was a letter such as this. The letters explain how the original writer was about to lose his home, job and/or family due to mounting debts, but he tried the scheme described and made vast sums of money from it. "It really works!" the letter concludes.

The scheme consists of a list of names and addresses, typically five. The recipient is supposed to send a dollar bill (in six years on the Internet, this writer has only once seen someone asking for pound coins) to the address at the top of the list, delete that address, move everyone else up one position and add their own name and address at the bottom. After that it is simply a matter of posting multiple copies to Usenet newsgroups, bulletin board systems and mailing lists everywhere, sitting back, and waiting for the money to roll in.

Simple? Not entirely.

For one thing, such "pyramid schemes" (to give them their proper title) are illegal in many countries. For another, your postmaster is likely to become very annoyed, as hundreds of irate Internet users from around the world ask her to explain the error of your ways. Many Internet providers have a specific injunction against postings such as this -- they've seen them far too many times already. All that aside, the mathematics just doesn't work out; the numbers required to make such a scheme run become enormous very, very quickly.

If someone sends you such a letter, throw it in the electronic dustbin -- and don't, please don't, be tempted to send it on yourself ...

Craig Shergold

Some years ago, a youngster called Craig Shergold hit the headlines in the UK; Craig had been diagnosed with brain cancer and was not expected to live. He decided that his last wish was to gain an entry in the Guinness Book of Records, and set about collecting the greatest number of greetings cards amassed by an individual.

Craig had treatment in the US, survived, and is now in his teens and still resident in the UK -- but he really, positively doesn't want any more greetings cards. Nor business cards. Nor any other sort of cards. They are still arriving by the sackload, and it seems to be impossible to make them stop!

Every now and then, a kind soul will hear about Craig's appeal and post details on the Internet, which will be passed on by other well-meaning folks, and add a few more sacks to those waiting at the South London sorting office which has borne the brunt of the card glut. Some versions of the appeal ask for cards (business cards, toys ...) to be sent to the Make a Wish foundation in the US, instead, which issues periodic appeals for the deluge to stop.

Again, please don't pass this information on if someone sends it to you, and please let them know that it's no longer current.

Good Times

One of the more recent online hoaxes was the mail about the Good Times virus. The warnings about this virus said that it was being spread by email with the subject "Good Times" and that reading a mail message with that subject could erase one's computer's hard drive.

This is, to put it bluntly, nonsense. There is no way to get a virus on one's computer simply by reading a text e-mail message. It just cannot happen.

For one thing, a computer virus needs to be specifically tailored to a single type of computer. A virus that affects PCs won't hit a Macintosh, neither will it do any harm to a Unix system.

More importantly, a computer virus needs to infect an actual file, rather than simply an electronic mail message, to have an effect (and be passed to other files). So if someone sends you a file, and tells you to execute it or read it with your word-processor, be wary, but if they're just sending you an ordinary e-mail message, there is nothing to worry about.

There is plenty of information online to help you sort out which warnings are useful and which schemes can be trusted. The Scambusters! newsletter is a useful resource for those interested in online schemes in general; apart from the Make Money Fast scheme mentioned above, they're interested in exposing companies overcharging for simple services (such as domain registration). M. L. Grant has a page detailing some of the more common hoaxes seen online, and there are also more specific pages dealing with the "Good Times" hoax and the various sorts of alleged money-making schemes. If you're online, it's worth taking the time to read about these topics; it can save you a lot of wasted time and possible embarrassment later on.

M. L. Grant:
The "Good Times" hoax:
Make Money Fast!: