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Don't be fooled!

  1st of November, 2002
Gypsies, jokers and thieves abound on the Internet as they do everywhere else. How can you tell if an email is genuine or a scam? When all else fails, our spotters' guide to dodgy online schemes will help you determine what's for real and what's fake.

Imagine the following scenario: when checking your email one morning you find a message from a friend passing on a memo from the CDC in Washington warning that a band of nefarious ne'er-do-wells have discovered a way of distributing the deadly Anthrax virus by email. "If you receive an email with the letters 'FYI' in the subject line you should delete it immediately!" Do you:

  1. forward this piece of vital information to everyone on your address list; or
  2. snort derisively and delete the email?
As scientific studies have proven, Communiqué readers are far more intelligent, attractive, and net-savvy than the rest of the population, so naturally you would be able to instantly spot a hoax when you see one. However, for the benefit of your dimmer (and less attractive) colleagues we present the following guide to Internet hoaxes and myths:
The Chain Letter
The content of these can vary widely but the form is generally the same - forward this email to ten or so people and something good will happen to you; failure to comply will result in something dreadful happening. The email may promise you good luck, that some wealthy individual will make a sizable donation to charity or that you personally will "Make Money Fast!" courtesy of an (illegal) pyramid scheme. Unfortunately neither the wealthy individuals nor the cosmic forces of good fortune will notice whether or not you pass on the email - although your boss might if you start passing it around the office.

See for a list of some sites that give some background and history of chain letters.

Virus Hoaxes
Although the email mentioned in the introduction is a fictional example, you have almost certainly seen similar things before passed on by well-meaning friends. Some of these are quite elaborate, designed to appear as press releases from well-known companies and some have been in circulation for many years.

For genuine information on the latest viruses, check the website of your antivirus software vendor. Symantec maintains a list of some of the more widely spread email and virus hoaxes that you may encounter, at

Too Good To Be True Spam
As a general rule one should look suspiciously at any product or service that needs to resort to spam email to promote itself. Some of these may be miracle products (that don't work) or legitimate sounding products that never arrive when ordered. And, for those who haven't heard of the Nigerian Scam ( you will not be able to make a quick million by helping a Nigerian government official to launder money.

Celebrity Scandal
Is George Bush really the USA's dumbest ever president? Possibly, but the widely distributed Lovenstein study of presidential IQs that has been gleefully cited on websites, passed around in emails and even reported in the mainstream print media was a hoax ( Despite being declared a hoax and apologies made well over a year ago now it is still doing the rounds along with a number of others - some of which date back to the 1980s. See for some others you may have come across.

Cloned Web sites
A common scam is to register a domain name that is very similar to that of an established and well-known business and then duplicate the official website down to the finest detail - except for the purchasing system. The thieves set up their own credit card payments system which funnels credit card payments their own bank account, so goods paid for are never received.

A popular target for such scams have been entertainment venues, with one group reportedly cloning the websites search for the words opera ticketing scam on any search engine for further details.

David Peterson is a Principal Consultant for Peterson IT Consulting. He heartily recommends that you pass this article on to ten of your friends.
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