Identifying Internet Hoaxes

You open up an email from a trusted friend and find a sad tale of a young cancer stricken boy who's dying wish is to receive a thousand well-wishing emails from all around the world. You wipe away a tear, send a heart-felt message to the listed address and pass the mail along to everyone in your address book.

What you don't realize is that the little boy actually died in 1975, the email address was for an innocent housewife, and you just participated in a massive denial of service attack that has crashed a major ISP and launched a federal investigation.

Scenarios similar to the one above have happened hundreds, if not thousands, of times since before the Internet went public. Whether they are maliciously crafted attacks or innocent mistakes, these hoaxes can cripple entire networks and wreak havoc on the lives of innocent bystanders. This page is meant to help you identify hoaxes and avoid becoming part of the problem. At the same time, you should be able to identify legitimate calls for action, which do happen from time to time and can be important elements in our democratic process.

When to Be Suspcicious
Any message which asks you to send copies to other people is a chain letter and should make you immediately suspicious. Propogating chain letters violates the user agreements of most ISPs and could result in the cancelation of your account. (See my page on Email Etiquette for other email do's and don'ts.) You should also be alerted by any message which asks you to sign a petition, send a letter, or take any other action. Remember that you are responsible for anything you send or pass along, so take a moment to ask a few questions.

Check the Source
If you received the message from a friend, ask them how much they really know about the issue. If the message refers to a web page about the issue, read it carefully. If the message contains an email address for the person originating the message DO NOT send them email. That may be the address of an innocent person who has no idea what is going on.

Follow References
Does the message refer to legitimate news sources such as CNN, or Associated Press? Be suspcicious if such sources are cited without a URL or other information telling you how to quickly find the report. If such a reference does exist, follow it to the original source. Make sure that the website you go to really is the official site for that source.

Look at Web Pages
Go to the web pages of any agencies or organizations mentioned in the message. See if they mention the issue or if you can find it in their search engines. Look to see if they have a section on hoaxes and if the message you are researching is listed.

Do a Web Search
Do a general keyword search at your favorite portal site to see if you can find web pages about the issue in question.

Check Dates
If the message is vague about when an event happened or uses relative dates (a month ago, two weeks from now), it may be refering to a legitimate event that happened years ago. Make sure the matter is still current.

A legitimate petition or call to action will be dated, refer to supporting web sites, and cite verifiable references to independent reporting agencies. Any message which you cannot quickly and thoroughly verify to be true and current is almost certainly a hoax. When in doubt, delete it and move on with your life.

For more information about Internet hoaxes, check out

Seth B. Noble - Netiquette - Identifying Internet Hoaxes - sbnoble - November, 2000