Second site: Bring on the empty hoaxes

"HELLO EVERYBODY! I am forwarding this because the person who sent it to me is a good friend and does not send me junk. Microsoft and AOL are now the largest Internet company and in an effort to make sure that Internet Explorer remains the most widely used program, Microsoft and AOL are running an e-mail beta test. For every person that you forward this message to, Microsoft will pay you $245.00. I thought this was a scam myself, but within days I received a cheque for $24,800.00."

In my dreams, of course. And none of you were fooled for a moment. You might not have realised that there is no such thing as an e-mail tracking program. You may not have been aware that Microsoft and AOL are rivals, not partners. Possibly you didn't stop to wonder how forwarding e-mails could have any effect on the popularity of a browser program which isn't even used for e-mail. But ever since you found out the truth about the Tooth Fairy, you have known that we do not live in the kind of world where we can click our fingers and make cheques for thousands of dollars pop through the letterbox. Junk-mail envelopes promising such riches tend to go straight from doormat to waste paper basket. Hoax e-mails, however, have an alarming tendency to be forwarded to every mailbox in the recipient's address book.

To a large extent, they rely on naivety. The Internet welcomes so many new users every week that hoax messages enjoy a constant supply of unwitting transmitters, such as the friend who sent me a version of the Microsoft-AOL hoax the other day. New to the Net or otherwise, these are in many cases people who ought to know better. The copy I received had been passed along by a number of individuals with British university addresses, and appeared to be signed by a genuine academic at Goldsmiths College in London. (A nearly identical version was sent to my editor on the same day, but purported to originate from a woman in a New York record company office.)

Back in January, somebody who works for a computer-game publisher sent me a related strain of the hoax, in which Microsoft's partner is Disney, and the prizes are either $5,000 or a trip to Disney World. Headed by a stack of annotations insisting that the message has been checked and is genuine, it is "signed" by Walt Disney Jr. According to Barbara Mikkelson's Urban Legends Reference Pages, my favourite among the many websites that record and debunk urban legends, there is no such person. But judging by the breathtaking crudity of the original "e-mail tracking" hoax, I suspect that the hoax would have thrived even if the name on the bottom line was Mickey Mouse.

The ULRP file on this family of nuisances opened two years ago, with a brief message that began "Hello everybody, My name is Bill Gates", and offered $1,000 for forwarding it. "I would hope that any hoax this badly perpetrated would die a quick death," writes Mikkelson, "but events have proved otherwise." Shortly afterwards, it was rewritten in corporate idiom, with satirical touches suggesting that the software under test was designed to destroy copies of Netscape's rival browser. After that came a story about a Microsoft-Nike joint venture, offering free shoes. Subsequent species of the hoax have offered free cargo pants and fishermen's hats from The Gap, free IBM computers, and free Honda cars. There's even one which offers free M&M sweets, but that is pie in the sky as well.

The last is the only example which includes the traditional chain-letter threat of bad luck to those who don't pass it on. But although the other strains contain no superstitious allusions, the people who spread them seem to believe that the Internet works by magic.

You can visit www.poptel.org.uk/secondsite for links to pages mentioned or contact Marek Kohn on secondsite@poptel.net

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