Virus Hoaxes

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Institute for the Investigation of Irregular Internet Phenomena announced today that many Internet users are becoming infected by a new virus that causes them to believe without question every groundless story, legend, and dire warning that shows up in their inbox or on their browser…

Gullibility Virus Warning, original 1998.

The first rule of all email warnings, especially virus warnings, is that the most urgent and seemingly authentic alerts are the ones most likely to be a hoax. However, because they can be forwarded to so many people at once so easily, it only takes a small percentage of recipients to spread the well-meaning but destructive infection farther.

Never spread a virus or other type of email alert unless you are sure it isn’t a hoax. In fact, most virus hoaxes actually are the virus, using your well-meaning heart as the agent of their continued spread across the world. We need to get the number of people who are knowledgeable about virus hoaxes and other fake alerts to a tipping point where not enough people will forward them to continue their spread.

Fake alerts go well beyond virus hoaxes, and include any email warning about consumer alerts, health or safety warnings, missing children, impending draconian legislation, or other apparently alarming issue. Any virus or other email alert should be considered a hoax unless specifically verified true. Hoax email warnings rarely contain valid contact information, and when they do, the inclusion is unauthorized.

A common and telltale sign of a virus hoax or fake alert is a heartfelt appeal at the end of the email to forward this critically important message to everyone you know (without which the writer’s efforts will have been in vain). Before forwarding any email alert, verify it with the sites below. If you find it is false, let the sender and other recipients know so they don’t forward it on.

Not only do virus hoaxes and other fake alerts spread across the world very quickly, they also change and mutate over the weeks and years, with more tantalizing or outrageous details being added along the way, sometimes with the bad guy’s names updated to the current villains. Soon hoaxes start showing up on people’s web pages, which makes them seem more authentic, and then, when we occasionally discover that supposedly true information is outrageously false, our threshold of acceptance for all information edges just a bit higher as we turn up the gain on the filters we use to judge the accuracy of all information from the outside world. That can’t be good.

One nuance: virus hoax alerts have circulated for many years warning against opening any email with the subject “Good Times”, “Win a Holiday”, or similar title, since they would supposedly wreak havoc on your computer simply by the act of viewing them. These virus hoaxes greatly ramped up the fear factor in novice’s hearts, and made simple use of email seem like a potentially hazardous act. Until the late 1990’s, there was simply no way for a virus to infect your computer simply by opening and reading an email. However… the development of the macro virus called Melissa in 1999 changed the game, showing that there were ways of writing viruses on Windows computers that were triggered by simply opening an email, using scripting mechanisms built into the operating system itself. Software patches have since eliminated most of these problems, and the most common form of virus infection remains running a file sent to you as an email attachment.

Resources. A couple of well known Internet hoaxes are described in the myths and legends section. The following web sites track virus hoaxes and other fake alerts and maintain searchable databases that should always be consulted to determine an alert’s authenticity before passing it on:

Sites on urban legends in general: