This recent request in a message in a Usenet newsgroup:

Please forward this email to all your friends on the internet

got this very appropriate response:

In my experience, messages that contain "Please forward this email to all your friends on the internet" are almost without exception either scams, hoaxes, or total nonsense (or some combination of the above). It is never wise to propagate them without verifying them first - it is usually a very bad idea.

jump forward to Specific Hoaxes

Introduction

Because e-mail is so easy to send to so many people, it has become the new medium of choice for propagating rumors and hoaxes - as well as an occasional real warning or solicitation for a worthwhile cause.

In the past year I've gotten many warnings and requests by e-mail - about supposed e-mail and other viruses, about "Make Money Fast" and other chain letters, about a campaign against cancellation of funding for radio shows, requests to send e-mail to increase a publisher's committment to donate books for children, and a metric boatload of unsolicted bulk or commercial e-mail.

Some were worth reading and forwarding, and some were either hoaxes or unverified rumors that had been forwarded by well-intentioned people.

When you get e-mail that says "please forward" or "pass this along," consider trying to verify the content before passing it on. Certainly verify first if the message asks you to send e-mail or paper mail to some address, or to call some telephone number - perhaps a perpetrator is trying to overflow someone's mailbox, or to run up toll-free number costs, or to induce you to make a toll call to a high-cost number - can you name 12 countries in North America area code 809?

Be wary of e-mail messages that quote or invoke authorities without providing specific references - if the messages say "the FCC announced" or "researchers at IBM found" then you should expect to also see a URL like http://www.fcc.gov/ or http://www.ibm.com/ or, for a real example: http://www.fbi.gov/fo/nyfo/body.htm#trojan - FBI Fraud Alert

Spending 10 minutes with a WWWeb search engine looking for keywords from a warning could save you some embarrassment, and save each of your e-mail correspondents the same amount of time and trouble.

If you find that a warning is a hoax, consider passing that information back to whoever sent you the warning, and perhaps along to your e-mail correspondents - and you may reduce the number of well-intended but spurious warnings that get mailed to you this year.

If you find that a warning that you have already passed on is a hoax, well, welcome to the club - many people have been taken in by carefully written hoaxes, and have passed them on with good intentions.

Specific Hoaxes

Before August, 1998, it was generally thought that you couldn't get a computer virus just from reading e-mail. Messages about Good Times, Penpal Greetings, Deeyenda, Join the Crew, and other so-called "e-mail viruses" are well-known hoaxes. For confirmation, see:

CIAC Internet Hoaxes | Good Times debunked

In August, 1998, a name tag security hole in several MIME-aware mail user agents was discovered. For details, see:

FAQ about Mime Name Vulnerability

You CAN get a computer virus or other damage from running an infected program, or from running a word-processing macro virus in an infected document, and an infected program or document could be an attachment to an e-mail message.

Widespread examples of infected attachments are "Happy99" and "Melissa".

Happy99 is a trojan horse program that, if run, alters your Win95 or Win98 wsock32.dll file, and attaches copies of itself to your outgoing mail or newsgroup postings. For details about Happy99, see:

The Melissa document-macro virus was widely reported in the media on and after March 26, 1999 - see the CERT report or the FBI Advisories, Alerts and Warnings page.

Learn the difference between reading an e-mail message or file, and running an executable file or e-mail attachment, or find more anti-virus info starting from:

alt.comp.virus Mini-FAQ | comp.virus FAQ | Computer Virus Myths
Computer Emergency Response Team

or get virus scanner software and more info from:

F-Prot virus protection | Virus scanner archive
Dr. Solomon's Anti-Virus | McAfee Home Page

or get yet more virus info from: Virus info and protection

If a message suggests sending cash by paper mail, you'll probably want to ignore it, or, if you care about the sender, return it to them. Pyramid schemes are fraud and chain letters are illegal in the US, see:

USPS - Inspection Service Consumer Fraud | USPS - Chain Letters

Neither Craig Shergold nor the Make-A-Wish foundation want your business cards, get-well cards, post cards, pull tabs, bottle caps, etc. Make-a-Wish never asked for cards. Craig did and got 16 million of them! Craig is not 13 and is not (any longer) dying of cancer - in fact, he turned 17 on June 24, 1996, and is doing fine. See any of:

Make-A-Wish Foundation of America | Make-A-Wish re Craig Shergold
NY Times article | a.f.u FAQ entries for Craig Shergold

and if you want to contribute something useful and meaningful, pick a children's or other charity and send them a check - not a card.

For more information on Urban Legends, look in each of:

Urban Legends Archive | alt.folklore.urban newsgroup

The FCC does not issue virus warnings, but in late 1996/early 1997 it did hear and deny a request to allow local phone companies to make per-minute charges on local calls for dialup Internet connectivity. Rumors of a similar hearing/public comment period in early 1998 for this so-called "modem tax" are false - get clarification and details at:

Fact Sheet on The FCC, Internet Service Providers, and Access Charges
FCC isp.html | FCC Bandwidth Home Page
filing comments
Pacific Bell on Bandwidth and ESP exemptions
1997 Small ISP Survey - Voters Telecommunications Watch
FCC BANDWIDTH FORUM transcript - appx. 330 Kbytes

In closing, let me suggest that you learn to evaluate everything you read in e-mail or on the Internet, just as you would evaluate what you read, hear, or see in other media, whether that medium is the local TV news, or a story you hear at a party, or a caller to a radio talk show, or a newspaper clipping in a letter from a friend.