Fact or fiction?

In previous columns, I discussed the ever-increasing number of spam emails and viruses. These are two of the more annoying and dangerous aspects of the Internet.

Jeffrey B. Dalin, DDS, FACD, FAGD, FICD

In previous columns, I discussed the ever-increasing number of spam emails and viruses. These are two of the more annoying and dangerous aspects of the Internet. If you have not read these columns yet, visit www.dentaleconomics.com and search for them in the archives. You must educate yourself fully on these subjects so that your life on the Internet can remain a favorable experience.

You should be getting more and more emails from your friends as everyone begins getting used to communicating via the World Wide Web. Many emails you receive may start with the word "forward." Some are jokes and stories that people love to send around to friends and acquaintances. Some are well-meaning greeting cards to sick children. Some play on greed, falsely claiming that you will receive free items for forwarding email on to your friends. Some are merely hoaxes.

Chain letters, hoaxes, and urban legends have been around far longer than the Internet. Because sending email is so simple and does not cost anything, these three phenomena are becoming more commonplace. Let's look back at some of the more famous (or infamous!) Internet legends:

1) Do you remember the story about Neiman Marcus charging a woman $250 for a chocolate chip cookie recipe? She was so incensed, she sent the recipe out on the Internet for revenge. The department store never served chocolate chip cookies until this forwarded email campaign became such a large spectacle.

2) The first computer virus hoax was the 2400 Baud Modem Virus. Over the years, these scams have popped up almost weekly. In 1994, The Good Times virus became an obsession, even though no such virus ever existed.

3) Remember Craig Shergold, the sick child in Great Britain? His dying wish was to receive business cards or emails from as many people as possible. He is alive and well and is now in his 20s, still living in England.

4) How about the Bill Gates story that he will pay you if you forward on a particular email to everyone you know?

5) How many times have you been offered tens of millions of dollars from political prisoners from Africa if you give them your bank account numbers?

The difference between an email hoax, mistake, and satire is the intention of the author. Why are we so susceptible to these hoaxes? Urban legends and tall tales have been around for centuries. However, the written word carries a lot of power. So, when you read a story in an email, it carries instant credibility, particularly if it has been sent to you by someone you know.

To prevent spreading bad information, follow this one simple step: keep your finger off of the "forward" key! If an email instructs you to send it to all of your friends, then maybe you shouldn't.

To verify information that you receive in an email, check reports in the mainstream media. After doing this, visit one of these news sites before you ever hit the forward key. Some good sites to check for hoaxes are:

www.snopes.com — Its specialties include information on hoaxes, legends, and fictions of all kinds.

www.hoaxbusters.ciac.org — This site specializes in hoaxes and chain letters spread over the Internet.

www.urbanlegends.about.com — You will find information about urban legends and Internet rumors here.

www.securityresponse.symantec.com/avcenter /hoax.html — It specializes in information about virus hoaxes.

www.sophos.com/virusinfo/hoaxes/recent — Another site that focuses on virus hoaxes.

www.vmyths.com — A source of reference information about all types of hoaxes and urban legends.

www.urbanlegends.com — Pick a topic and see what is listed on that subject.

www.truthorfiction.com — Another good place to find out information about hoaxes.

www.sbt.bhmedia.com — This site provides information on strange, but true, facts.

Discussion groups — You can always post questions on discussion boards and more knowledgeable people on the board will give you answers.

Do hoaxes and chain letters ever die? The Neiman Marcus cookie recipe and Craig Shergold letters are still circulating 10 years later! Like gossip, they can never be totally stopped.

Jeffrey B. Dalin, DDS, FACD, FAGD, FICD, practices general dentistry in St. Louis. He also is the editor of St. Louis Dentistry magazine and spokesman and critical-issue-response-team chairman for the Greater St. Louis Dental Society. His address on the Internet is www.dfdasmiles.com. Contact him by email at jeff@dfdasmiles.com, by phone at (314) 567-5612, or by fax at (314) 567-9047.

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