Is This Email Story for Real?

How Smart Users Identify Online Hoaxes and Urban Legends

You've certainly seen some of these outlandish stories:

Marlboro is giving away cigarettes on Facebook.
Muslims steal pews from a church.
Kittens are grown in bonsai jars.
Vaporizers will burn holes in your lungs.
Mel Gibson was mutilated as a teenager.
Swiffer Wet Jet poisons dogs.
People's kidneys are stolen, and then the victims are left in bathtubs of ice.
Flashing your highbeams could mark you for gang assasination.
Proctor and Gamble finances the Church of Satan.
Tommy Hilfiger is a racist.
Snakehead fish can walk on land and eat small children.
Penis-shrinking sorcerers are terrorizing West Africa.
Neiman Marcus cookie recipes are secretly available.
Microsoft will pay $400 if you forward a specific email to twenty people.
Starbucks refuses to support US troops.
African expatriates want to transfer $4.5 million to your personal account.
Sharks are found in freshwater lakes.

Do any of these email stories sound familiar? Do you receive these outlandish photos and yarns in your mailbox? Do you immediately forward them to your friends?

As compelling as these amazing stories are, they are all fiction. Creative pranksters conjure these stories, naive readers believe them, and then those same naive readers forward these hoax emails around the Internet, embarrassing themselves in the process.

If you are aware of their fiction, these myth and hoax stories can be truly fun to read. But sadly, many readers actually believe these email hoaxes, and forward them unwittingly. This causes damage to legitimate manufacturers, blemishes people's good names, and sows unfounded fear in consumers.

Don't get suckered by these compelling hoax emails! Enjoy them, laugh and shake your head when you receive them, but do show maturity and balance before you forward them to your friends.

There are four common kinds of email hoaxes:

  • Fake Photos (Hands of God, sharks eating helicopters, monster cats)
  • Chain Letters (threats, requests, promises of money)
  • Mythical Stories, (public warnings, shocking narratives, outlandish claims)
  • Outright Scams ("phishing" and phone schemes attempting to access your finances)

In all cases, your response should routinely be:

  • Be skeptical.
  • Resist the urge to click the link or forward the message.
  • Do your homework and confirm the message.

For email stories, photos, and chain letters: do not forward the email.

Even if the nature of the email story makes it seem urgent and time-sensitive, resist the urge to forward it. As compelling as that mermaid photo or that Microsoft promise of $400 can be, take 10 minutes and confirm it first. You will save yourself embarrassment in front of your savvy friends, and you will help stop the spread of damaging email rumors.

For emails that ask you to confirm your bank or online identify: never respond or click the link.

A legitimate bank would never ask for your identity via an email link. Instead: immediately close all browser windows, and then use either a newly-launched browser, or pick up the telephone, and check your bank personally to confirm the identity request.

This kind of cautious response is very important to thwart these clever email scammers. Whenever you receive a phishing email (fake email attempting to lure you into giving your eBay or bank account and PIN), NEVER click on the link. These scammers are trying to lure you into typing your account number and password!