Eight Crazy E-Mail Hoaxes Millions Have Fallen For

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Bill Gates Wants to Give You Money

Bill Gates's bucks
Artwork: Chip Taylor
This summer an editor at PC World received a note from a relative asking if the e-mail she had received that told her Bill Gates wanted to send her $1000 was real. Uh, no...

Although Gates is being very generous with his fortune now that he has retired from day-to-day work with Microsoft, you can get some of it only by applying to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. But long before the foundation was created, back in the early days of the Internet, e-mail discussing Gates's or Microsoft's willingness to fork over free cash was widely circulated--and clearly, it's still forwarded today. Snopes.com has a list of the urban legends circulating most widely and, despite the fact that Gates and Microsoft have been the subject of phony e-mail alerts and hoaxes since the 1990s, they are still in the top 25 this month.

One version says that Microsoft wants to make sure Internet Explorer remains the dominant browser (which we're sure is true). All you need to do to help out and get money from Microsoft is to forward an e-mail to your friends. Microsoft will track the e-mail for two weeks, and you get paid for every person who receives the e-mail through you. Among the attractive details is a list of differing amounts that will come to you depending on how many referrals you make--one version of the scam says the sender received a check for $24,800 from Microsoft. Not chump change!

Hold on a second. First, if tracking an e-mail like that were even possible, the Electronic Frontier Foundation would be all over that faster than you can say "invasion of privacy." Oh, and did we mention that the technology to do such a thing probably doesn't exist? Of course, since you read PC World, you know that already. But if Microsoft ever really wanted to pay us just for forwarding an e-mail, we're game.

Launch a Nuclear Strike From Your PC

Nukes from your PC
Artwork: Chip Taylor
In 2002, Symantec supposedly issued an advisory about certain e-mail messages flying around the country about an "important virus to look out for." The antivirus-software maker, which does issue warnings on real viruses, allegedly instructed Internet users not to open any e-mail with the subject line "LAUNCH NUCLEAR STRIKE NOW." If you did open that e-mail, you would inadvertently end up sending nuclear warheads winging their way toward the former Soviet Union. That's right, you could start your very own nuclear war while in your slippers and bathrobe.

The deal was that opening the e-mail would download a virus that would tell your PC to access NORAD computers in Colorado and instruct them to launch a full-scale attack on Russia and former U.S.S.R. states. Okay, maybe Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice may be thinking that way right now over the current crisis in Georgia, but let's leave that to the professionals, shall we?

Needless to say, the virus isn't real, Symantec didn't issue such a caution, and it should be painfully obvious that this one is a hoax. If that isn't clear to you, step away from your PC and don't ever touch it again.

Hello, My Name is Mr. Paul Agabi, a Lawyer in Nigeria--Can You Help Me?

Let us guess: At one time or another, you've received an e-mail from an earnest resident of Nigeria that starts with a hello and an introduction to the sender. The e-mail then suggests that your help is needed to claim an abandoned sum of money in a foreign account, or something similar. The message typically promises that you will receive a large amount of money if you simply send a smaller amount of money now.

You didn't fall for it, did you? These convincing missives, which may or may not be from Nigeria, are known as 419 scams (named after a section of the Nigerian criminal code that deals with fraud). Wikipedia says most of them are advance-fee frauds or confidence tricks. Not only will you not get rich, but you'll also have a very hard time getting back any money you wire the sender up front. We're sorry to report that these types of scams, which are based on versions dating back to the early 1900s, are still popular--variants purporting to be from Russia, Spain, Nigeria, and many other countries still pour in to e-mail accounts around the world.

As a U.S. Postal Inspector once told us when we talked to him about U.S. mail fraud, "If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is."

'Video: Watch Angelina Jolie's Lips Explode!'

Photograph: Rachel Ashe/Wikimedia
Here at PC World, we've warned and warned readers, but still people click on dangerous and fake attachments that purport to be interesting photos or videos but actually turn out to be damaging viruses or Trojan horses. An early star of such e-mail scams was Madonna. Paris Hilton certainly had her day, as did Lindsay Lohan. Poor Britney Spears is still holding strong in this category. But we have to say that in 2008, the uncontested star of creepy download offers appears to be Angelina Jolie.

Just today in our spam-overflow folders, we found the above-mentioned subject line discussing Ms. Jolie's lips, as well as "Britney Spears and Brad Pitt Naked Video" (does Angelina know?), "Jolly Jolie Sex Scene," and--with extra points for having both ladies in the same e-mail--"Angelina Jolie and Britney Spears lesbian sex tape."

Speaking of jollies, you'll get a lot more than that after nasty viruses trash your PC. (You know deep in your heart, don't you, that the invitation to click on racy photos/videos just opens nasty executable files for malware?) You won't be so jolly when you get the bill to rehab your computer.

Work Virus

Work Virus
Artwork: Chip Taylor
Though an obvious joke, the Work Virus hoax reported last year by antivirus company Symantec will likely bring a smile to any cube dweller's face. An excerpt from the e-mail tells the story: "There is a new virus going around called 'work.' If you receive any sort of 'work' at all, whether via e-mail, Internet, or simply handed to you by a colleague...DO NOT OPEN IT. This has been circulating around our building for months, and those who have been tempted to open 'work' or even look at 'work' have found that their social life is deleted and their brain ceases to function properly."

Pure genius. We'll have to send this one to our boss.

How to Spot a Hoax E-Mail

Several resources can tell you whether an e-mail claim you're interested in is a hoax. One is Hoax-Busters.org, which describes itself as the Big List of Internet Hoaxes; another is Snopes.com, which specializes in urban legends and hoaxes, and a third is Hoax-Slayer.com. Check out any of these sites before you forward that next petition, chain letter, or crazy photo.

Hoax-Busters also has a list of the "5 Telltale Signs of an Internet Hoax" that might useful.

  • The e-mail will have a sense of urgency about it, and probably a lot of exclamation points in it.
  • The e-mail will insist that you tell all your friends.
  • The text is adamant that this is "NOT a hoax."
  • It will earnestly inform you that there are dire consequences for not participating.
  • It probably is full of >>>> marks, showing that it has fooled a lot of people before you, and has been forwarded all over the planet. Don't add any more! If you must forward something, try this: The Federal Communications Commission's list of the Top 10 Spam Scams.
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