Tuesday, May 26, 2009

This is not a Hoax

image List the horrors out there on the internet. Let me guess what makes your list. Viruses. Spam. Spyware. Credit card fraud. Porn. Old pictures of you from when you were in secondary school. One thing that I bet will not make your list is internet hoaxes. Hoaxes are not dramatic. They don’t keep your computer from working. They don’t take money from out of your pocket. So why care about hoaxes? There are several reasons you should.

A hoax, according to Wikipedia is “a deliberate attempt to dupe, deceive or trick an audience into believing, or accepting, that something is real, when the hoaxster (sic) knows it is not; or that something is true, when it is false.” The most familiar types of hoaxes are April Fool’s Jokes.

Hoaxes have been around for far longer than the internet, but like for so many other things the internet has accelerated the ability to spread hoaxes. In that lies their potential for great damage. One of the most common types of hoaxes out there are virus hoaxes. For example:

Some miscreant is sending email under the title "Good Times" nationwide, if you get anything like this, DON'T DOWN LOAD THE FILE!
It has a virus that rewrites your hard drive, obliterating anything it. Please be careful and forward this mail to anyone you care about. The FCC released a warning last Wednesday concerning a matter of major importance to any regular user of the Internet. Apparently a new computer virus has been engineered by a user of AMERICA ON LINE that is unparalleled in its destructive capability. Other more well-known viruses such as "Stoned", "Airwolf" and "Michaelangelo" pale in comparison to the prospects of this newest creation by a warped mentality. What makes this virus so terrifying, said the FCC, is the fact that no program needs to be exchanged for a new computer to be infected. It can be spread through the existing email systems of the Internet.
Once a Computer is infected, one of several things can happen. If the computer contains a hard drive, that will most likely be destroyed. If the program is not stopped, the computer's processor will be placed in an nth-complexity infinite binary loop - which can severely damage the processor if left running that way too long. Unfortunately, most novice computer users will not realize what is happening until it is far too late. Luckily, there is one sure means of detecting what is now known as the "Good Times" virus. It always travels to new computers the same way in a text email message with the subject line reading "Good Times". Avoiding infection is easy once the file has been received simply by NOT READING IT! The act of loading the file into the mail server's ASCII buffer causes the "Good Times" mainline program to initialize and execute.
The program is highly intelligent - it will send copies of itself to everyone whose email address is contained in a receive-mail file or a sent-mail file, if it can find one. It will then proceed to trash the computer it is running on.
The bottom line is: - if you receive a file with the subject line "Good Times", delete it immediately! Do not read it" Rest assured that whoever's name was on the "From" line was surely struck by the virus. Warn your friends and local system users of this newest threat to the Internet! It could save them a lot of time and money.
Could you pass this along to your global mailing list as well?

Now this may seem like a harmless, though annoying joke, but it has the potential to cause quite a bit of trouble. Many hoaxes ask you to take some kind of action or the other. For instance, delete a file from your computer or stop using a particular product or adopt a particular perspective on something. Then it also usually asks you to forward the email to everyone you know. this is where the internet effect comes into play. Say you forward to 100 people and those 100 people forward to another 100 and so on and so forth. In a matter of seconds, that email could be in a 100 million mailboxes. If we assume 10KB for each copy, That’s 1TB (1,000 GB) of storage space consumed with false information that is spread, not by some insidious mechanism like a virus, spam or a trojan, but by gullible people hitting the forward button. That is bad enough but it can get worse. Now supposing you, and 10 percent of the other recipients (10 million people) actually act on the suggestion of the hoax. This could potentially result in 10 million support calls to a service provider because they deleted an important, or 10 million people who go to see a doctor because of imagined symptoms, or a business that loses millions of dollars in lost business because of a hoax about cockroaches in their factories. Now look at it from a different perspective, supposing, again 10 percent of the hundred million people read the email and spend 1 minute on it. That is 10 million minutes. Which is nearly 170,000 man-hours. If we assume a totally arbitrary five dollars per hour that is $850,000 lost.

You get the idea.

What should you do with hoaxes? Ignore them. Don’t forward them. Don’t hit “reply to all” asking that no more should be sent to you. Kill it dead. Of course, it is not always clear that it is a hoax. However hoaxes usually have the following characteristics.

  • Hoaxes toss up well known names in the industry they address in order to give an air of authenticity. So a virus hoax may invoke Microsoft, Symantec (makers of Norton Antivirus) and CNN (to get the media angle). A hoax about a disease may invoke the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). A financial hoax may invoke the name of a bank.
  • Hoaxes ask that you forward to as many people as you know. They have usually already been sent to a lot of people, so you will often see a lot of email addresses already in the email.
  • They usually claim catastrophic effects. A virus that will bring down the internet. A plot to ban all preachers from American television. A company who will donate 1 dollar for every email forwarded to the live-saving operation of a little child.
  • Some technical, professional or scientific sounding information. Most people believe that people who sling around technical terms are speaking the truth – the worship of the expert.

There are websites out there that keep track of hoaxes: www.snopes.com, www.museumofhoaxes.com, and one of the better ones, www.hoax-slayer.com. Your favourite antivirus software will also have information about current hoaxes on their website. The cartoon is courtesy of www.paultempleton.co.uk.

Hoaxes can cause as much damage as the better known internet horrors out there. Unfortunately, there is no technical tool to keep them away. You just need to have a healthy dose of scepticism and go easy on the forward button.