Why shouldn’t I forward this email asking me to “forward to everyone I know”?

Every few days, we get forwarded email warning us about everything from lost children to free money. They're mostly bogus and known as urban legends.

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I received an email with a disturbing story that seems like more people should know about. At the bottom, it even suggests that I forward it on to everyone I know. It seems such an important issue … and yet I’ve been told that I shouldn’t forward this kind of thing. Why not?

I get that kind of email from time to time also. Over the years, I’ve developed a pretty good skeptical “nose” for sniffing this kind of thing out.

What is it I’m smelling?

A big pile of lies, frauds, and misinformation usually.

Folks, you simply must approach the internet with skepticism. It’s chock full of misinformation, and a lot of it shows up in your email inbox.

Every few days, it seems, I receive a forwarded plea warning us about the latest political abuse, conspiracy, health threat, or computer virus, or telling me I can get money by forwarding the email to all my friends. That last part is key: “forward this to everyone you know!” is almost always present. They’ve come to be known as urban legends.

And they’re almost always wrong.

At the risk of sounding like a great email I saw a few years ago: Bill Gates is not tracking your email, and he will not pay you to forward this. The Gap is not handing out coupons based on how many people you forward your email to. Tampon manufacturers are not adding asbestos to promote bleeding (and more tampon use). Envelopes are not being sent out with viruses that release when you open them [Check here for info on anthrax scares, which sound similar.]


Sites like Snopes will quickly and easily allow you to search and determine whether that important plea is just another hoax.

You get the idea. It goes on and on.

And they all insist that for your health or for your wealth or for the education or protection of others, you should forward the email to everyone you know.

Don’t. PLEASE don’t. Just resist the urge.

At least, don’t do it until you’re sure it’s legitimate. And if it asks you to “Forward this to everyone you know,” or “Tell all your friends and loved ones,” chances are it’s not.

How do you tell if it’s legit?

You’ll note that each of the examples above are, in fact, links to pages which describe in sometimes excruciating detail the hoax, its origins, variations, and most important of all…whether or not it is true. There are many great sites that you can use to find out. I’m particularly fond of Snopes – it’s rare that I can’t find what I’m looking for there, and each item has a clearly written and well researched explanation of it’s truth or fallacy. Sites like Snopes will quickly and easily allow you to search and determine whether that important plea is just another hoax.

Why care?

I hate when that happens.There are many reasons to care about the issue. Certainly forwarding email that is in fact wrong is kind of like putting garbage in the inboxes of all your friends and family; at best, you’re wasting their time, and at worst, you’re causing unnecessary anxiety. (Check out the end of the discussion of the so-called Klingerman Virus for one extreme case of hoax-induced anxiety.) Realize also that many people still pay by the minute to connect and download email; these hoaxes (very much like spam) are eating up time and bandwidth and costing them money.

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… tell all your friends!

Forward the URL of this article (http://askleo.com/?p=2319) to everyone you know!

OK, so I’m only being partly facetious. You’re obviously welcome to point people at this article (or not) as you see fit. But as you see, urban legends being passed around the internet take it as an opportunity … the more people that “get it,” the fewer bogus stories, warnings, and other garbage that we’ll all have to wade through. You’ll educate a few people and reduce, by a small amount, the misinformation on the internet.

(This is a revision of an essay I originally wrote in 2001.)

References

Snopes.com, my favorite all-around urban legend site.

urbanlegends.about.com

FaceCrooks for Facebook related hoaxes and scams.

Symantec’s Security Response Center for tracking down virus warnings

The US Center for Disease Control Health Related Hoaxes and Rumors

The Spam Primer, which goes into this topic in more details. Let’s face it, ultimately you are sending spam when you forward urban legends.

There are 41 comments:

  1. Ingrid Reply

    Hi, I don’t think you’ve answered this:
    Why do people actually make forwards? I’m guessing that it’s not just for fun so they must be making money from it? Maybe you don’t want to tell how it works incase more people get on the bandwagon, but please I am genuinly interested and it would help me convince others how wrong it is.

  2. Tracey Reply

    Thanks SO much, Leo, for this excellent summary of the things to be wary of in your Inbox. I’ve started providing the link to this article to everybody who sends me one of the offending emails, for their edification. Well done!

  3. Georg Reply

    I have lately been getting e-mails stating to invest in stock. These are coming from people I don’t even know! They also ask me to send them to friends and family. Funny part is I looked into the stocks and their losing money not making it. They pass through the spam filter by using titles like…Re: dental negotiation

    Besides adding them to my spam filter how can I block these people out?

  4. dunstergirl Reply

    Sigh…not just urban legends (the Neiman-Marcus cookie one was making the rounds 15+ years ago when connections were still limited to dial-up BBSs) but the Internet equivalent of chain letters (send to 10 people and suddenly your life will change, of course for the better, until all your friends send you snippy comments about useless emails in their inbox), petitions (check the source first), “really cute” (and huge) pictures of animals that all your friends just HAVE to see, jokes, etc…PLEASE folks think about the recipient and whether a) they will really appreciate the message and b) they have the bandwidth to download it. I live in a rural community and pay a lot for satellite broadband (for my work) but most of my neighbours still use dialup and even they are guilty of passing on this stuff!

    Think I’ll bookmark this link for future replies to folks that I thoroughly like but who haven’t fully learned “netiquette” yet….

  5. Chuck Reply

    Years ago, a worker at the US Postal Service got an email with a dire warning about a virus. They hit a “forward to all” button that sent it to everyone in the USPS. And so did the next guy, and the next . . . Before it was done, they’d sent so many emails to so many people so fast, they crashed their email system. In this case, the EMAIL MESSAGE WAS THE VIRUS!

  6. sundog Reply

    Leo, thank you for this article. I emailed it last year to a friend who was always bombarding my old hotmail address with not only the hoaxes and misinformation you mentioned, but political/religious/wingnut messages. She apparently assumed I agreed with her on these, but some of them were so offensive I came very close to blocking her at one point. Your article solved my problem in that she apparently was offended by it: she no longer emails or talks to me. Which is both kind of sad and good, and a bit of an irony, since I taught her how to use email.

  7. John Reply

    I’ll forward this to everyone on my email list and encourage them to do the same!

  8. Darryl Reply

    The other thing about forwarding all these emails is that most do not erase the old email addresses of those that have forwarded these messages around for ever. I get people that send me these and I could make a fortune selling email addresses. Some messages I get are almost a megabyte in size for just the email addresses included in it.

  9. Mark Jacobs Reply

    Since Facebook has come out, I’ve gotten much fewer of these kinds of emails. Instead of urban legend emails I see more and more of these re-post this on your status update messages. BTW has any one tried the “Nieman Marcus” recipe? Is is any good?

  10. mahendra Reply

    do e-mail service providers pay money for forwarding mails …..

    NO. Never. That’s an urban legend.

    Leo
    31-Jan-2011

  11. GREG JACKSON Reply

    I had a friend that repeatedly sent emails of this sort. Most were jokes (and most weren’t that funny) and he would shotgun them out to everyone. After my polite request to stop these forwarded emails, he kept doing it, albeit less. I blocked him. Problem solved.

  12. GREG JACKSON Reply

    “They’re mostly bogus and known as “Urban Legends”.
    “Free money” ? lol I guess people will never learn.

  13. Mark Reply

    I had a “not so bright” colleague forward a hoax email to me… in a somewhat vexed state of mind, i replied with [abridged for relevance]:

    Subject: Re: FW: Police warning – worth reading —this is fact !

    surely an official police warning would come FROM THE POLICE?

    http://www.hoax-slayer.com/infant-car-seat-gang-warning.shtml

    In fact, I’d be more worried about “fake” checkpoints with gang members dressed up as policemen. I recommend everyone to NOT STOP AT CHECKPOINTS and then ring the police immediately afterward with details of where and when it was, and your license number and car registration details in case they want to send you a reward for your civic duty thus executed.

    Sorry for the sarcasm, but I don’t think this world benefits from the wholesale and thoughtless spread of fear and dis-trust. Take the time to verify before forwarding…

  14. Walter Reply

    When I get e-mails that are “embellished” or not factual, I usually reply (to “all” if necessary) with the link to snopes or factcheck.org and a brief overview explaining why I should never have gotten that e-mail or they should never have sent it. After a few replies, the amount of e-mails drop sharply. I hope it is because the senders are fact checking and not because they “don’t want to hear it” from me.

  15. Emma Reply

    This one time i saw this email that said
    “Hi, i am teddy.” and then said a bunch of stuff and said “If you forward this to 8 people, you will be a millionaire. If you don’t, i will come to your room and kill you.” At first i was freaked out but then i saw the email address and it said something about spam so i knew it was a spam.

  16. Mark J Reply

    This also applies to social media posts. They’re not as bad as emails, but I get some pretty scary/funny repost this and so-and-so will get a cancer treatment or change some setting on Facebook to protect my privacy etc.

  17. Steve Reply

    The easiest way for anyone in doubt to check on whether its a scam or not is to copy a relevant sentence from the email and paste it into Google. Every time I’ve tried it, Google i comes up with pages of “This is a scam” type messages. Plus the links to Snopes etc.
    hth

  18. Reverend Jim Reply

    Some of them even contain health advice such as “cough violently if you think you are having a heart attack” or “immediately apply flour to a burn”. In some cases the advice is just useless, in other cases it is dangerous, and possibly life threatening.

  19. Jim M Reply

    Can’t believe there’s no mention of TruthOrFiction.com.
    I think this is the best of the lot.

  20. Michael Reply

    Many of these add a line saying something like “Verified by Snopes” with a link to somewhere that probably isn’t Snopes. ALWAYS verify it yourself.

  21. Jay Reply

    Not always. Charity, Appeals and animal welfare groups like IFAW ask that you forward – but you shouldn’t, not for the reasons mentioned but to avoid email harvesting.

  22. UnderhouseTroll Reply

    Following this advice will cut down on my social life. I live under a house (not saying which, maybe yours). I have access to the fundamentals, including a dial-up internet connection. Reading and forwarding these sorts of emails is what I do.
    PLEASE don’t suggest that people stop sending them. I’d be so lonely. And my puppy would die. And you will receive $1,000,000 if you just erase this article, and never repeat it.
    Please copy this comment and send it to everyone you know, plus maybe a few congressmen, mayors, doctors, etc.

  23. Steve Reply

    Sound advice…. Sadly, too many people are still taken in by so many of the hoaxes. I notice Reverend Jim makes good reference to the “cough if you think you’re having a heart attack” advice that’s doing the rounds again – noticed it was on fb over the weekend…

    Thankfully I’m cynical by nature and dismiss the majority of junk that lands in my inbox. :-)

    Enjoyable read and probably something worth forwarding on to my parents and a couple of friends that I can think of that are really not internet savvy.

    Steve

  24. rocketride Reply

    @ Leo
    The proper response, if anyone actually uses that bit in the blue box, is “And how many times has this happened to you?”.

    @ Michael
    And DON’T use the link they provided– God knows where it really goes. Type snopes.com (or whatever) directly into the address bar or click on it in your “favorites” or “bookmarks” of you already have it there.
    Or you could do a little snooping and use whatever tool your email program has (it’s called “View Page Source” in Thunderbirdfor reading an email as plain text to look directly at the headers and embedded URLs and get a feel for the category, at least of critter that’s trolling you. If you care that much.

    @UnderhouseTroll
    :) Got kicked out from under the bridge, did you? You might try feeding the puppy some of your goat.

  25. Jim H Reply

    A friend who had a bad habit of doing this very thing ended up with his email address hijacked and the dozens and dozens of names in his forward/cc section were also harvested for SPAM distribution. I guess the spammers figured if he was emailing that many people at least some would open something that appeared to come from him.

    I warned him and he blew me off until one day he called in a panic because his mother and sister were both receiving porn site solicitations appearing to come from him. And every other service and product soon began to follow. Almost everybody he knew, myself included, had to block him and very few would give him a second chance.

    I always though it was spammers that started this stuff because what better way to harvest email addresses than wait for one of those ‘send this to everybody you know’ emails to come back chock full.

    As an aside, I wouldn’t want anything to do with or trust somebody who believed everything he/she read and spread it as if it was true without making sure first. That behavior is seldom limited to just email hoaxes and eventually that sort of rumor spreading turns into gossip spreading.

  26. Pedro Stephano Reply

    There are many similar stories on Facebook, but they are told with pictures, and the required response is a click, which shares and perpetuates this misinformation. The social media equivalent of the chain email.
    I recommend “ignore & scroll on”

  27. Rob Reply

    You are hearing the voices of long experience in the above comments. It only takes a minute to check with Snopes or Google the subject and you will soon find out if you are being taken in or not. Better safe than sorry !!

  28. Doug B Reply

    Leo,
    I’ve got a relative that feels that it is her civic duty to send, at least me, all of the religious, political, etc mails that have the “forward to other” hook in them. Your explanation is certainly way better than I could have written. I’m sending her this web site in the hopes she will read it and understand more clearly why I do not want the kinds of messages you have been talking about.

    Thank you for your timely message.

  29. Donny C Reply

    Regarding, “Why shouldn’t I forward this email to everyone I know” I really like what Leo says about doing the footwork by fact-checking newsletters prior to forwarding them. However, I caution that at least one site he recommends has a history of political bias. Far better to do your snooping at the source. Example: Newsletter says, “the economy is improving.” Go to the Congressional Budget Office site and verify how many people are signing up for Food Stamps. Do not trust third Party sources. Just follow the money. Again, accolades to Leo for his great newsletter.
    DC

  30. RobertR Reply

    Brings back memories of the Good Times Virus (see below–make sure you send the warning to everyone you know :-) ) that circulated years ago.

    Subject: “Very dangerous” computer virus

    Goodtimes will re-write your hard drive. Not only that, but
    it will scramble any disks that are even close to your computer. It
    will recalibrate your refrigerator’s coolness setting so all your ice
    cream goes melty. It will demagnetize the strips on all your credit
    cards, screw up the tracking on your television and use subspace field
    harmonics to scratch any CD’s you try to play.

    It will give your ex-girlfriend your new phone number. It
    will mix Kool-aid into your fishtank. It will drink all your beer and
    leave its socks out on the coffee table when there’s company coming
    over. It will put a dead kitten in the back pocket of your good suit
    pants and hide your car keys when you are late for work.

    Goodtimes will make you fall in love with a penguin. It will
    give you nightmares about circus midgets. It will pour sugar in your
    gas tank and shave off both your eyebrows while dating your
    girlfriend behind your back and billing the dinner and hotel room to
    your Discover card.

    It will seduce your grandmother. It does not matter if she
    is dead, such is the power of Goodtimes, it reaches out beyond the
    grave to sully those things we hold most dear.

    It moves your car randomly around parking lots so you can’t
    find it. It will kick your dog. It will leave libidinous messages on
    your boss’s voice mail in your voice! It is insidious and subtle. It
    is dangerous and terrifying to behold. It is also a rather
    interesting shade of mauve.

    Goodtimes will give you Dutch Elm disease. It will leave the
    toilet seat up. It will make a batch of Methanphedime in your bathtub
    and then leave bacon cooking on the stove while it goes out to chase
    gradeschoolers with your new snowblower.

    Be sure to send this to everyone you know.

  31. Paul Reply

    Yes, I agree, Leo, there is a lot of “junk” mail, today. And, thanks for bringing politics into your work; the one thing we see so much in our emails, Leo has done to us today.

  32. Dan Reply

    What gets me are those that when you reply back with the snopes link that shows it is a hoax, they post “Well – it should be true!”. There are some people out there that live to forward this junk, and nothing you can do will stop them! Luckily I only know one of them, so it isn’t too bad. I just have their emails go to a special folder so I can more easily see if it is a forward email or some real family news.

  33. johnpro Reply

    Copy & paste a few lines of the suspected email content into Google.It will take you to relevant articles in snopes etc if it is a fake.
    jp

  34. Bjantiques Reply

    Leo, Leo, Leo, I really thought you were a person that posted reliable and trust worthy information.

    Why oh why would anyone with any intelligence trust or recommend Snoops?

    The site is full of warnings they class as real, which are not and never were.

    They have warnings that have not had the information about them updated and corrected in years.

    It is my opinion that Snoops is a total waste of both time and space, and has been for the last eight years or so.

    I use the Symantec site for virus information as to if it is real or not.

    For the rest of it, I use my common sense and if in doubt I Google it and see how many sites I can find with info about it.

    Yes, I will look at the Snoops site, but I will NEVER EVER go by Snoops alone. The reason being I usually find multiple sites all in agreement, but saying the opposite of what Snoops says.

  35. indianacarnie Reply

    Good article, too bad so many don’t get the point of it. Keep doing what you do Leo, your’s is one of the first places I recommend to my more computer/net challenged friends.

  36. Diane Trefethen Reply

    @Bjantiques
    When one posts a comment that many people will disagree with, citing a legitimate source is required if the commenter wants to be taken seriously. When one accuses a website of posting “warnings they class as real, which are not and never were,” one is accusing the website of lying. Again, to have your charge be taken seriously, you need to post the urls of a few such warnings “which are not and never were” real.

    Please post the urls for some false warnings from Snopes.com.

    Thank you.

  37. vishnu Reply

    I think that any reasonably mature and intelligent person can smell the bullshit when they see it. I must caution, however, using sites like Snopes to weed things out.
    Many years ago I started consulting Consumer Reports magazine about potential purchases. I very quickly determined that they were useful, but not reliable in all regards. If you want to know about peanut butter, washing machines, or TVs, they are the go-to resource. About cars, bicycles, or cameras…not so much.
    It’s the same with Snopes; for debunking urban (or other) legends, they are fairly reliable…for anything political, you need to look elsewhere.

  38. William Reply

    I agree with Jim M. Wonder why TruthorFiction.com not mentioned. I have found it very accurate and thorough in its evaluations. My experience with Snopes has been mixed. Not as consistently useful as TruthorFiction.

  39. whisperingsage Reply

    Yes, Snopes is good for email hoaxes and benign stuff, but not for politics. Ocassionally they will get one right, but for example, the “Branch Davidians” gets no hits at all. And we know what a big collosal mess that was.
    Urban legends, and truthorfiction are others I too use. And sometimes I will keep looking even to see if it is anywhere in a foreign news source.
    Otherwise, Snopes is still good for the spider in the toilet rumors. And who knows, it won’t hurt to look in the toilet. We have had spiders in our bed so why not the toilet?

  40. Cindy H Reply

    It’s so simple to find a small relevant portion of the suspect email you’ve received, copy and paste it in a search bar, and hit ‘enter’. I don’t even bother with quotation marks! More often than not, I’ll see several choices of what to read as an explanation, and it’s usually a lot of hooey! :) I gave up forwarding those emails years ago when a smart brother-in-law wised me up!

  41. Kristin. N. Reply

    Snopes can be good, but even without this site, I do not email ‘to everyone on your contact list’ for many reasons, and wish some folks would do the same. I do, however, forward good jokes..everyone needs the ‘aerobics for the insides’ that a good laugh gives.

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