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We've all get emails asking us to forward the email so that some entity will make a donation to some cause. Don't. Just don't. It's an email hoax.

I received a chain letter containing a poem allegedly written to a dying child, and with the claim that AOL and ZDnet would donate 32 cents (Zimbabwean) towards the cost of an operation every time the letter was forwarded. My first reaction was to ask if it is technically possible for someone to keep track of a chain in this way. Perhaps you might discuss this. My 2nd reaction was to check it out on Snopes, which confirmed the hoax, but didn't actually discuss whether it is possible to trace a chain.

It's been a while since I've touched on this topic, so it's overdue.

Forwarding an email will not help anyone. Forwarded email cannot be tracked.

Let me say that again: forwarded email cannot be tracked. So don't forward it. Please.

It's an email hoax.

I'm actually fairly amazed at the number of times something will get forwarded around that is so obviously a hoax.

Paraphrasing from a previous article of mine, "Why shouldn't I forward this email asking me to 'forward to everyone I know'?" :

No one is tracking your email, and no one will pay you or donate to some charity to forward this.

This isn't just because I or anyone else says so, it's very simple:

Email cannot be reliably tracked.

Even if a company or individual wanted to do what these hoax emails claim, they simply cannot. Even if they did use some form of image tracking or "web bug", as they're known, there are two massive problems with the approach:

"If it says 'forward this to as many people as you can' ... DON'T."
  • Most email programs don't retrieve and display the images by default, effectively disabling the tracking completely.

  • Most of these email messages are so mangled after however many forwards by however many people using however many different email programs, the chances of any tracking image even still being present and workable is next to zero.

The rule of thumb is very simple:

If it says "forward this to as many people as you can" ... DON'T.

That, all by itself, is the single biggest indicator that what you've got in your inbox is a hoax.

To once again quote my earlier article:

Isn't it safer to just forward - just in case it's true?

No. It's really more likely that you'd be passing on misinformation. It's really very simple ... check it out before you forward. If you don't check it out, don't forward, and no harm done. If there's actually an important, legitimate issue, then chances are you'll see it in the legitimate press ... we've seen that recently with very real computer viruses and terrorist anthrax threats making front-page news. Email is not how news organizations, corporations and government spread legitimate news and important information.

So how do you "check it out"? There are many, many resources. My favorite is Snopes.com which is kept amazingly up to date, even though the vast majority of scams circulating on the internet are years, sometimes even decades old. Based only on the information presented in the question above, I was able to locate the very hoax mentioned: Rachel Arington. On that page you can see that the "Zimbawean" aspect was an addition to the original hoax in 2001, and that the same hoax is floating around in many variations and attributed to many different children.

On behalf of everyone you might forward these kinds of things to:

Article C3324 - March 18, 2008 « »

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Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

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6 Comments
Matt
March 18, 2008 1:12 PM

Excellent, now I can show this article to a few relatives of mine instead of having to explain it. Thanks.

Roger Howell
March 18, 2008 6:17 PM

I am so glad for your article. I have told people time and time again to use snopes.com to check something that's questionable that they have either received or read on the internet including those forwarded e-mails you mentioned. Maybe hearing from an established computer user, then maybe somone will finally take me seriously.

Natalie Kehr
March 18, 2008 11:30 PM

I can trace my part of the chain back to a member of staff at a college. It went from colleges to hospitals. From my part of the chain I know over 50 e-mail addresses. I will be writing to all these people telling them about this article, and also pointing out how undesirable it is to publicise other people's addresses without their permission. Perhaps Leo could do another article on the use of bcc rather than cc.

Bill P. Godfrey
March 19, 2008 5:58 AM

Forward this to as many people as you can!

(joke)

Randy
March 21, 2008 8:32 PM

Forwarding mail can really come back to haunt you, as one lady discovered: http://www.thisistrue.com/warning.html

Nick H.
March 22, 2008 4:08 PM

Asking (possibly inexperienced) users to remember a specific URL (e.g. snopes.com) will generally not work.
Maybe better to advise all unsure recipients to simply 'Google' the subject line of the message; it is pretty much guaranteed that they will end up at snopes or similar anyway.
Thanks for all the articles ... Cheers.
Nick H. France

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