The beep alerts Wendy Kendall, who works in a Washington, D.C., software firm, that another e-mail has arrived. It's a forwarded message from a friend claiming that a sick little girl's dying wish is to get into the Guinness Book of World Records for the largest greeting card collection in the world. She asks only that you mail her a get-well-soon card. At one time Miss Kendall passed around lots of these forwarded messages, mainly computer virus warnings. But recently her friends informed her that she was sending them hoaxes. Miss Kendall promptly hits the delete key. "I've learned my lesson," said the 26-year-old documentation specialist. "Now I'm more cautious." Known as "netlore," these stories, warnings, and "deals of the century" have become the flotsam and jetsam of the Internet. "It's funny how people who wax skeptical when somebody offers them something for nothing in the real world abandon all logic when they receive the same kind of offer by e-mail," said David Emery, who oversees the "Urban Legends and Folklore" section of About.com. The giveaways, promising cash and fabulous prizes for simply forwarding an e-mail message to a few more people, seem the most irresistible. They promise a free trip to Disney World, $1,000 from Bill Gates, a $500 savings bond, even a new car. Netizens often pass them on rather than take the slim chance of being left out. Mr. Emery warns netizens to be skeptical of any forwarded e-mail where the author is trying to scare you. "Beware of anything really emphatic, written with lots of exclamation points or in all capital letters," he said. Watch out for "anything that says 'forward this to everyone you know' or 'this is not a hoax.'" Darwin Glassford, professor at Montreat College in Montreat, N.C., notes that hoaxes coming from friends or relatives enhance their credibility. "People subconsciously think, 'If so-and-so believes this, then it must be true,'" he said. "We really have no idea how much these hoaxes are costing" American businesses, said Rob Rosenberger, a computer virus expert who consults for PC Magazine. The e-mail hoaxes soak up computer memory and employee time when thousands of gullible customers send in for some "free" gift, and often damage customer relations. "I treat much of this stuff the same way I treat gossip," Mr. Glassford said. "I verify the truth or it stops with me." "The medium definitely aids the process," Mr. Glassford added. Since it takes literally seconds to forward a message to hundreds of people, and since the Internet has millions of newcomers every year, it appears hoax problems "will continue to get worse before they get better."
-Stephen McGarvey is a World Journalism Institute fellow