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How to spot e-mail hoaxes

By James Hanback Jr.

SEPTEMBER 13, 1999:  There are times when I marvel at how integrated e-mail is with my daily life. It's something that crept up on me, much like thinning hair or the accumulation of dust on top of the refrigerator tends to creep up on the unsuspecting.

Nowadays, if I have an inclination to communicate, I am more likely to pound out a few words and click "Send" in my e-mail program than I am to pick up the telephone or print out a letter and drop it in the mail.

E-mail brought a convenience into my life that I now wonder how long I could do without. It's a source of learning, interaction, frequent long-distance communication, and pleasure. But it can also be a royal pain in the tuckus.

On top of heavy e-mail marketing (known as spam), Internet e-mail is also heavy on hoaxes--messages that usually contain some kind of false advertisement, virus warning, or product warning, and encourage the reader to "forward it to everyone you know." From the "Good Times" virus hoax in 1994 to the most recent "Windows Regional Settings Y2K" hoax, people seem to forward these messages blindly, without really bothering to examine the message for validity.

Admittedly, the Windows Regional Settings hoax is the most convincing e-mail hoax to arrive in a long time. But, according to Microsoft and Russ Cooper, editor of the NTBugTraq e-mail list (a list dedicated to tracking and documenting bugs and fixes in Windows NT), it is a hoax.

The message warns that Microsoft has omitted important information about Windows Y2K compliancy by not informing users that the Short Date Format in Windows' Regional Settings control panel is set by default to display dates with two-digit years. The e-mail further states that because of this default setting, programs run under Windows will interpret two-digit years after 99 in the wrong century.

On its Web site, Microsoft points out that the Regional Settings applet changes only the display of date format, and not the way the operating system handles dates. The company also says that Windows '95, '98, and NT store dates in four-digit format, regardless of how they are displayed. (More information about Microsoft products and Y2K compliancy, including fixes for some Y2K issues, may be found on the Web at http://www.microsoft.com/y2k.)

Nevertheless, the e-mail caused quite a stir for Cooper, who posted a message to his list asking his readers to stop sending him the message, and asking that some of them stop pretending this was their own "new discovery."

"If I get one more person sending a message to NTBugtraq regarding the Y2K hoax about Windows falling over because it only displays a 2-digit year, I'm going to scream," Cooper said in his e-mail, and then offered the following tips for dealing with the hoax: "If you get a message telling you Windows is going to fall over because of a Regional Date setting 'problem,' send them this link: http://www.microsoft.com/y2k/hoax/y2khoax.htm.

"If they make the message look like it comes from them, and is a result of their deep and thorough understanding of both Y2K and Windows...tell them you've got a bridge to sell them.

"If they send it to lots of people, like a mailing list for example, publish their names...and say how they don't have a clue about that which they email."

When I contacted Cooper about republishing his comments, he added that he does not have a problem with forwards from people who are simply asking him whether a particular e-mail has any truth or validity, but he does have a problem with those who automatically forward to everyone they know, or who pretend they know something they don't by making it appear as if they originated the hoax e-mail.

So to assist in saving some Internet bandwidth, and to try to help reduce the volume of some of the hoaxes that arrive in my inbox, here are a few tips for dealing with potential e-mail hoaxes:

  • Be wary of anything that contains the line: "Forward this to everyone you know."

  • If the e-mail contains a virus warning, look for a line similar to "This information was just released today from America Online and IBM." IBM and America Online, to my knowledge, have never co-announced the presence of a virus, but this is an often-used line in e-mail virus hoaxes.

    For up-to-date information about viruses and virus hoaxes, try an antivirus research database, like the Symantec AntiVirus Research Center at http://www.symantec.com.

    It's a good idea to check any virus warnings you receive through e-mail with a trusted research center before you forward the information to your entire address book.

  • If in doubt, ask. Everyone knows at least one person who seems to know everything about something. Before you forward an e-mail, check with someone who might know something about its subject matter, or research the topic on your own.

  • If you're not planning on forwarding e-mails you receive, and you simply want to reduce the volume of e-mails people forward to you, make sure your constant e-mailers know your wishes. Ask them to stop forwarding e-mails to you unless they've checked their validity first.

    You could also set up an e-mail filtering system that moves items with "Fwd" or "FW" in the subject header to a separate folder or mailbox. Many e-mail programs contain such features. However, setting up such a general filter could cause problems by filtering out forwarded messages you want to receive. If the constant forwards you receive are generally from one person, filtering by sender instead of subject might be a better idea.

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