Monday, September 11, 2006

Don't Forward This E-Mail

Information on the Internet is subject to the same rules and regulations as conversation at a bar. ~George Lundberg

Over at Explorations, I wrote a piece about a viral e-mail that seems to be popping up every August that says Mars is going be at its closest approach ever, and it's going to be bigger in the sky than the Moon. This is, of course, what I will politely call “hogwash.”

“Viral e-mails” are e-mail messages that are wildly circulated among Internet users. They don't necessarily have viruses in them, but they get sent out in such quantity that they seem to breed in a virus-like fashion. Viral e-mails are dumb jokes, political character assassinations, stupid pictures, and, most often, bad information on a ridiculous scale. I think the term “viral e-mail” dates back to the 1990's, when real viruses were just starting to have an impact.

The “Good Times Virus” e-mail was arguably the first really impressive viral e-mail. In fact, most often, it wasn't even an e-mail; it was a group posting on AOL (where it apparently started) and Compuserv. Basically, the message was to not open any e-mail or posting with the subject “Good Times”. If you did, horrific things would happen to your PC, to your friends' PC's, and possibly to all living things on the planet. It was soon joined by a warning about the “Pen Pal” virus, which had the same sort of legs. Eventually, parodies of these appeared, which really did say that the offending messages would cause all the food in your refrigerator to spoil, rape your grandmother, dig up your grandmother if she was dead and then rape her, and so on. They were hilarious.

They also got picked up by some idiots who thought they were legitimate, beginning a new round of viral e-mailing.

The thing that makes these things so effective is that they almost all end with the following deadly sentence: “Send this to everyone you know!” And people did, over and over again.

What makes these so disgusting, aside from the toll they take on mail systems, is that people actually believe some of these things. For example, there's the Mars thing, which if true, would mean serious death and destruction on Earth, thanks to earthquakes and volcanic activity. Or there was the Hillary Clinton e-mail of a year or so ago, which will probably be making the rounds again as Presidential election time rolls around. I forget the exact details, but it had something to do with Senator Clinton having defended a notorious Black Panther or some similar extremist. Trouble was that at the time the extremist was being tried, the Senator was still in law school.

There was National Don't Buy Gas Day, supposedly a national boycott of the petroleum companies. Or, if you like oldies but goodies, there's the Niemann-Marcus cookie recipe (or maybe it's brownies) that supposedly cost some woman a small fortune when she published it and was sued by the retailer. If you've got a gullible friend or two, you've gotten one.

As a public service, I'm going to let you in on the next big-time viral e-mail. Best of all, this one is going to come from, of all things, a 419 scam. I've described these before, so I won't do it again except to say that 419 scams are fraudulent attempts to get you to send money and/or your bank information to someone on the pretext that you are going to get very rich by assisting the scammer in removing copious amounts of money from a foreign country.

A new one has the potential to turn into a phony “news” piece claiming that WMD's were found in Iraq. As you will see if you follow the link, the letter claims to be from a member of the “US Marine Force on Monitoring and Peace keeping mission”, a mouthful if there ever was one. The scrappy Sgt. Tao, the supposed author of this message, was part of this group when they attacked a terrorist stronghold, killing a lot of people, and finding guns, bombs, cocaine, and nuclear weapons. Thanks to the rather strange syntax of the message, it could be that the cocaine was actually in one of the nukes, but I could be wrong.

At any rate, the good Sergeant also turned up $25 million lying about as well. If you are willing to help him violate U.S. law and smuggle the dough out of “Baghdad-Iraq”, you score 20% of the swag (or 10 years in jail, depending on your luck).

Of course, this is patent nonsense, although it will snag some slightly dishonest and completely stupid people. However, what I think is that the scam portion of this message is going to get dropped by one of the wags who starts those viral e-mails. Within days, I expect to have someone forward me “Proof Saddam Had WMD's” in which I will find the exploits of Sgt. Tao and the “US Marine Force”, complete with body count related in gory detail, and ending with explicit instructions that I should send this important information to everyone I know.

So consider yourself forewarned. I'd say the odds are good that you should be seeing this tripe in a mailbox near you soon. Just delete it and move on. My only concern is what happens when a copy of this gets sent to a member of a certain news service.

I mean, can't you just hear Fox News campaigning for Sgt. Tao to be decorated?

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