Security Tip (ST04-009)

Identifying Hoaxes and Urban Legends

Viral emails are familiar to anyone with an email account, whether they are sent by strangers or well-intentioned friends or family members. Try to verify the information before following any instructions or passing the message along.

Why are viral emails a problem?

Viral emails quickly propagate from person to person. Although they may seem harmless, these emails can contain malware or mask other malicious activity, which pose a serious risk to recipients.

Viral emails may not only make systems susceptible to malware, they may also

  • Consume bandwidth or space within the recipient's inbox;
  • Obligate people you know to waste time sifting through the messages and, in some cases, verifying the information; and
  • Spread fear, uncertainty, and doubt.

What are some types of viral emails?

There are two main types of viral emails:

  • Hoaxes – Hoaxes attempt to trick or defraud recipients. A hoax could be malicious, e.g., instructing users to delete a file necessary to the operating system by claiming it is a virus. It could also be a scam that convinces users to send money or—in the case of a phishing attack—personal information (see Avoiding Social Engineering and Phishing Attacks for more information).
  • Urban legends – Viral emails that include urban legends usually warn of a threat and compel recipients to forward the email to others. These emails often pose as notifications of important or urgent information. Some viral emails containing urban legends may promise users monetary rewards for forwarding the message. Others may urge the recipient to sign a petition that the email claims will be submitted to a particular group.

How can you tell if the email is a hoax or urban legend?

Be especially cautious if the message has any of the characteristics listed below. Note: these characteristics are just guidelines—not every hoax or urban legend has these attributes, and legitimate messages may have some of these characteristics:

  • It suggests tragic consequences for not performing some action.
  • It promises money or gift certificates for performing some action.
  • It offers instructions or attachments claiming to protect the recipient from a virus that is undetected by antivirus software.
  • It claims it is not a hoax.
  • It contains multiple spelling or grammatical errors, or the logic is contradictory.
  • It contains a statement urging the recipient to forward the message.
  • It has already been forwarded multiple times (evident from the trail of email headers in the body of the message).

If you want to check the validity of an email, there are websites that provide information about hoaxes and urban legends:

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