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Junk E-mails Pile Up in Employees' In-boxes

November 26, 2000
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When Ellen Ranalli received an e-mail informingher that a recent health study had shown that anti-perspirants could causebreast cancer, she was alarmed. She immediately forwarded it to all of herfemale relatives, friends and co-workers.

Likewise, when novice investor Scott Jamisonreceived an "insider tip" that a large Internet Services Provider wasabout to merge with a Pentium chip manufacturer -- sent by an attorney, no less-- he excitedly shared the news with his co-workers.

Both people (whose names have been changed)thought they were being helpful by sharing with their colleagues what theybelieved to be important information. Instead, they were helping to spread someof the Internet's most notorious e-mail hoaxes.

Innocent-looking, yet virulent

E-mail scams come in all forms. What's scary isthat many can sound completely believable:

  • One heartfelt electronic missive offered thestory of little Jessica Mydek, a seven-year-old suffering from a rare caseof cerebral carcinoma. As part of her dying wish, she wanted to start achain letter to aid cancer research. For every new person that received thee-mail message, several unnamed corporate sponsors had offered to donatethree cents to the American Cancer Society.
  • Another e-mail claimed to be from the founderof an upscale clothing retailer. If the recipient forwarded the message tofive people, he or she would receive a $25 gift certificate from thecompany.
  • Finally, a message which purported to be froma marketing analyst for a large candy manufacturer asked recipients to passthe message on to five other people. Every time the message reached 2000 newnames ("our tracking device is calculating how many e-mails you sendout"), the original recipient would receive a free case of chocolate.

All are e-mail hoaxes -- colossal time-wastersthat negatively impact businesses and their corporate networks. They spreadfalse information and waste valuable bandwidth.

"It's annoying, it slows down the e-mailsystem, and a lot of it is fraudulent," says

Jodie Bernstein, director of the Federal TradeCommission's Bureau of Consumer Protection.

And even when users become experienced enough tobe able to tell a silly message when they see one, "anyone can get suckeredsometimes," says Charles Hymes, an IT professional who operates anon-profit Web site, "Don't Spread That Hoax!"

How to spot them

The number of commercial e-mails receivedannually by the average U.S. consumer will explode from 40 in 1999 to 1,600 in2005, reports research firm Jupiter Communications. The key is to learn tohandle spam now -- before it overtakes your company.

Most e-mail chain letters and hoaxes containthree classic elements: a "hook," -- such as a story about a sickchild, or an offer of free merchandise -- a threat, and a request. And liketraditional chain letters, some threaten bad luck to the recipient who fails toforward it to others.

Most e-mail hoaxes have forged headers; whenrecipients try to respond, they'll get an immediate "bounced back"message that the address is not valid.

Some spam -- such as dubious-soundingmoney-making opportunities or X-rated photographs -- is easily recognizable. Butas spammers become more adept, spam is getting harder to recognize.

Some of the most nefarious include offers ofinvestment opportunities, cable descrambler kits and work-at-home employment.There are also health warnings, offers of free long distance phone cards, andvacation prize promotions.

Recipients should be especially wary if ane-mail contains "insider information" about an upcoming businessmerger. Not only does the release of such information violate Securities andExchange Commission laws, it also may be a forerunner of a pyramid schemedesigned to bilk people out of their money.

How do e-mail spammers and scammers get hold ofyour employees' addresses in the first place? They "harvest" e-mailfrom all over the Internet -- thanks to special software that can grab addressesfrom chat rooms, Usenet postings, Web sites and online bulletin boards. Evenonline auction sites are prime pickings for these harvesters. So encourage youremployees to stay off such sites during work hours -- and to avoid giving outtheir corporate e-mail address.

Spam-stopping tips for employees

  • Don’t respond to the spam. Ifyou do, the spammer will know that your e-mail address is active and can sellit to others. Better yet -- don’t even open the e-mail if you know by thesubject line that it’s not legit.
  • Guard your e-mail address.Don't post it on any Internet bulletin boards or newsgroups. And if a Web siterequires that you give them your e-mail address, make sure they have a privacypolicy that protects it and other personal information you share. If you dolike to post on message and discussion boards, do not use your company e-mailaddress.
  • Don't forward questionable e-mail. Ifyou suspect that a message could be a scam, it probably is. Trust yourinstincts.
  • Be wary of "health warnings." Ifyou receive a notice claiming that certain products cause major diseases,don't forward it. Instead, watch the nightly news or daily newspaper. If sucha health warning is true, the national media will be aware if it.
  • Avoid "free offers." Ifsomeone's promising free silk underwear or a hundred candy bars in exchangefor your forwarding an e-mail, don't believe it.
  • Delete immediately. Ifyou get something in your e-mail box that you can instantly identify as ascam, get rid of it fast.

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