Many e-mail hoaxes trade on sympathy. Others promise quick riches. Whatever the ploy, the fact is that e-mail hoaxes spread like wildfire on the Internet. Many fabrications sent by e-mail sound believable, others absurd. Many are dangerous.
Many Internet surfers unwittingly forward the fakes to friends, family, and acquaintances. Tracking down the original authors is very difficult, however, because even the wiliest of detectives don't have many clues to work with.
Chain letters are part of this problem. The principle behind a chain letter is simple: the author sends off an e-mail with a fake message and calls upon the recipient to send it to as many people as possible. If at least one recipient actually does so, then the message will probably continue to pass on into the mailboxes of the wider Internet community.
"There are various types of chain letters," says Heiko Rittelmeier, who runs a Web site dedicated to stamping out chain letters. Some warn of non-existent Internet viruses, ask for personal data, or predict bad luck if the letter is not forwarded.
Other letters take advantage of human emotions.
"When there are a lot of reports on cancer in the media, we usually see lots of chain letters with heart-stirring stories about cancer patients," says Rittelmeier. Very often there isn't a single real person or true story behind them at all.
So-called pyramid schemes, however, revolve around money. Such letters encourage the recipient to forward a certain sum to another person within the system. In return, such a letter promises, other participants will send back an even larger sum at a later date.
"These systems are difficult to tackle legally," says Juergen Schroeder, a representative from a consumer agency in Germany. Participation can only be proven if monetary contributions are paid to a central account. This is rarely the case, since Internet chain letters are often by their nature decentralized.
Very often it is innocent people who get into trouble when their names are falsely given as the sender of a chain mail letter. According to a report from the University of Ulm, Germany, a popular ruse to falsely append another person's name as the sender. Such victims can face months of angry letters or worse as a result.
There is little protection against chain letters, since they are generally sent by friends or acquaintances.
"Only information can help," Schroeder says.
Those looking to check whether a virus is real should look up security software Web sites like Symantec or McAffee, or a general hoax-busting site like http://www.snopes.com.
"Please do not forward virus warnings that ask you to forward them to other people," reports an expert from the Technical University of Berlin. Any letter that would ask you to do so is 99 percent likely to be fake.