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SCARS™ Online Safety: Identifying Hoaxes and Urban Legends

Chain Letters, “Yes” and “Share Posts” – Are Familiar To Anyone With An Email Or Social Media Account!

Whether they are sent or posted by strangers or well-intentioned friends or family members. Try to verify the information before following any instructions or passing the message along.

Why Are Chain Letters A Problem?

The most serious problem is from chain letters that mask viruses or other malicious activity. But even the ones that seem harmless may have negative repercussions if you forward them:

  • They consume bandwidth or space within the recipient’s inbox
  • You force people you know to waste time sifting through the messages and possibly taking time to verify the information
  • You are spreading hype and, often, unnecessary fear and paranoia

What Are Some Types Of Chain Letters?

There are two main types of chain letters:

  • Hoaxes – Hoaxes attempt to trick or defraud users. A hoax could be malicious, instructing users to delete a file necessary to the operating system by claiming it is a virus. It could also be a scam that convinces users to send money or personal information. Phishing attacks could fall into this category.
  • Urban legends – Urban legends are designed to be redistributed and usually warn users of a threat or claim to be notifying them of important or urgent information. Another common form are the emails that promise users monetary rewards for forwarding the message or suggest that they are signing something that will be submitted to a particular group. Urban legends usually have no negative effect aside from wasted bandwidth and time.

What About Sharing Posts?

What we call “Share Posts” are posts that ask you to endlessly forward or share posts on social media.

They have all the same issues of chain letters with one important difference – the originator of the posts can frequently see the identities of everyone that shares it, likes it, and comments on it. So there are ideal honey pots to identify prospect scam or cybercrime victims as well.

How Can You Tell If An Email Or Post Is A Hoax Or Urban Legend?

Some messages are more suspicious than others, but be especially cautious if the message has any of the characteristics listed below. These characteristics are just guidelines – not every hoax or urban legend has these attributes, and some legitimate messages may have some of these characteristics as well:

  • It suggests tragic consequences for not performing some action
  • It promises money or gift certificates for performing some action
  • It offers instructions or attachments claiming to protect you from a virus that is undetected by anti-virus software
  • It claims it’s not a hoax
  • There are multiple spelling or grammatical errors, or the logic is contradictory
  • There is a statement urging you to forward the message
  • It has already been forwarded multiple times (evident from the trail of email headers in the body of the message)

Many computer viruses exist, and you are wise to protect your computer from virus, worm, and Trojan horse attacks. However, you should view with care any unsubstantiated warnings you receive by email or see on newsgroups. Some of these warnings may be legitimate, but in most, the information is false and the danger is overstated. Below is official information on some specific virus hoaxes. If you receive messages about these, do not send them to others. 

For more information about virus hoaxes, see McAfee – Virus Hoaxes

Virus Hoaxes

Good Times Virus

From CIAC Hoaxbusters:

The “Good Times” virus warnings are a hoax. There is no virus by that name in existence today. These warnings have been circulating the Internet for years. The user community must become aware that it is unlikely that a virus can be constructed to behave in the manner ascribed in the “Good Times” virus warning.

In the early part of December 1994, CIAC started to receive information requests about a supposed “virus” which could be contracted via America Online, simply by reading a message.

CIAC has also seen other variations of this hoax. The main one is that any electronic mail message with the subject line of “xxx-1” will infect your computer.

This rumor spreads widely, mainly because many people delete the message without reading it, believing that they have saved themselves from being attacked. These first-hand reports give a false sense of credibility to the alert message.

If you encounter this message, ignore it or send a follow-up message stating that this is a false rumor.

Irina Virus

From CIAC Hoaxbusters:

The “Irina” virus warnings are a hoax. The former head of an electronic publishing company circulated the warning to create publicity for their new interactive book by the same name. The publishing company has apologized for the publicity stunt that has back-fired and panicked Internet users worldwide. The original warning claimed to be from a Professor Edward Pridedaux of the College of Slavic Studies in London; there is no such person or college.

Penpal Greetings Virus

From the F-Secure Corporation:

This is not a virus, but a widespread hoax, warning about a dangerous email message titled ‘Penpal greetings’. No such danger exists.

This hoax is very similar to Good Times.

Deeyenda Virus

From the F-Secure Corporation:

This is another virus hoax. There are a lot of warnings about this ‘virus’ going around, but such a virus does not exist, and no future virus will be named ‘Deeyenda’.

Ignore the hoax warnings and do not redistribute them.

Join the Crew Virus

From the F-Secure Corporation:

This is not a virus, but a version of the Good Times hoax. It was started by a message posted to some Usenet newsgroups in February 1997. The original message was like this:

… just to let you guys know one of my friends received an email called “Join the Crew,” and it erased her entire hard drive. This is that new virus that is going around. Just be careful of what mail you read. Just trying to be helpful…

Ignore these messages and do not pass them on.

Returned Mail or Unable to Deliver Virus

From the F-Secure Corporation

This is a hoax warning about an email virus that does not exist. It looks like this:

There is a new virus going around in the last couple of days!!! DO NOT open or even look at any mail that you get thar [sic] says: “Returned or Unable to Deliver” This virus will attach itself to your computer components and render them useless. Immediately delete any mail items that says [sic] this. AOL has said this is a very dangerous virus, and there is NO remedy for it at this time, Please Be Careful, And forward to all your on-line friends A.S.A.P.

Ignore this hoax warning and do not pass it on.

Win a Holiday Virus

From the F-Secure Corporation

This is a false warning of a malicious email which does not exist. Here’s an example of the hoax:

If you receive an email titled “WIN A HOLIDAY” DO NOT open it. It will erase everything on your hard drive. Forward this letter out to as many people as you can. This is a new, very malicious virus and not many people know about it. This information was announced yesterday (16/2/98) morning from Microsoft; please share it with everyone that might access the Internet. Once again, pass this along to EVERYONE in your address book so that this may be stopped. Also, do not open or even look at any mail that says “RETURNED OR UNABLE TO DELIVER” This virus will attach itself to your computer components and render them useless. Immediately delete any mail items that say this. AOL has said that this is a very dangerous virus and that there is NO remedy for it at this time. Please practice cautionary measures and forward this to all your online friends = ASAP.

Ignore this hoax warning and do not pass it on.

Checking For Truth – Identifying Fakes & Urban Legends

If you want to check the validity of an email, there are some websites that provide information about hoaxes and urban legends:

When it comes to Urban Legends related to scams and scamming we have a section devoted to this as well – click here for the SCARS articles on Scam Urban Legends.

Contributing Authors

United States Department of Homeland Security, Indiana University, and Dr. Tim McGuinness.


TAGS: SCARS, USDHS, Scams, Urband Legends, Chaim Email, Share Posts, Fakes, Honey Pot, Social Engineering, Hoaxes,Cybercrime, Crybercriminal