Technology in terms you understand. Sign up for the Confident Computing newsletter for weekly solutions to make your life easier. Click here and get The Ask Leo! Guide to Staying Safe on the Internet — FREE Edition as my thank you for subscribing!

Is this an email hoax? Will forwarding an email help a dying child?


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

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

It’s an email hoax.

Become a Patron of Ask Leo! and go ad-free!

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

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

“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 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
. 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:

Do this

Subscribe to Confident Computing! Less frustration and more confidence, solutions, answers, and tips in your inbox every week.

I'll see you there!

6 comments on “Is this an email hoax? Will forwarding an email help a dying child?”

  1. I am so glad for your article. I have told people time and time again to use 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.

  2. 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.

  3. Asking (possibly inexperienced) users to remember a specific URL (e.g. 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


Leave a reply:

Before commenting please:

  • Read the article.
  • Comment on the article.
  • No personal information.
  • No spam.

Comments violating those rules will be removed. Comments that don't add value will be removed, including off-topic or content-free comments, or comments that look even a little bit like spam. All comments containing links and certain keywords will be moderated before publication.

I want comments to be valuable for everyone, including those who come later and take the time to read.