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Tech Beat: Think before you click

Spam, scams & urban legends can waste time & worse

By Steve Ashley

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If you’ve used e-mail for any significant amount of time, chances are you’ve received numerous messages with “interesting” content from friends, co-workers and strangers. Have you ever read any of these?

  • A bad guy’s in custody and the cops want a confession. He’s not the sharpest knife in the drawer, so the investigators decide to try a little hocus-pocus. First, they put a sheet of paper with the words “He’s Lying” into their office copy machine. Next, they put a metal colander on the guy’s head. Finally, they hook a wire between the colander and the copy machine.

    Whenever they get an answer they don’t believe, they push the Copy button, and the machine spits out a He’s Lying page. When faced with this irrefutable proof of his untruthfulness, the suspect gives a full confession.

    When the case goes to court, the judge throws out the confession because the cops lied.

  • A speeder on a California highway checks his mail a couple of days later and finds a computer-generated traffic citation, along with a photo of his vehicle and a radar readout. The letter demands a fine of $40 by return mail. The speeder is miffed, so he takes a photo of two $20 bills and mails it to the police department. A couple of days later, he gets another letter from the police chief, this time with a photo of a pair of handcuffs. He decides to surrender, and mails in his check for $40.
  • There’s a new computer virus called Good Times going around in an e-mail. If you open the e-mail it’s attached to, the virus will cause your hard drive to destroy itself.

I’ll bet you’ve heard these stories, or had someone you know tell you they know someone that they actually happened to. Of course, when we were kids, we all heard the stories of the bloody hook hanging on the car door and the dead mouse in the can of soda.
We’re talking about apocryphal stories here—stories that everyone’s heard but nobody knows where they came from. They’re funny, or they try to help, and what harm do they cause, right?

Are They Harmless?

If these myths were like the old stories we used to tell, there wouldn’t be much harm. But with the advent of the Internet, there are many more urban legends and other types of nefarious messages out there, and they can fly around the office, or around the globe, amazingly fast.

Everything from jokes, to chain e-mails, to virus warnings bloat our e-mail inboxes every day, and they can cause some very real problems for police agencies. First, messages like these can overload your computer system, causing storage and capacity problems. They cause your spam filters to work overtime, and, since most of your people will have to at least scan them to make sure that they aren’t deleting important e-mail, they represent a huge waste of time.

Second, forwarding these messages can inadvertently pass on viruses or other nasties that can infect your recipients’ machines. Additionally, some messages that warn of viruses or other malicious files can direct users to delete system files that should not be deleted, or to take other unnecessary maintenance steps that can cause their machines to malfunction.

Third, these messages sometimes purport to come from legitimate sources, such as Microsoft, and attempt to entice you into clicking on a link in order to download a critical security update or some other nonsense. When you do, your machine gets infected.
Last, the information in these types of messages is usually just plain wrong, or at least distorted. This dilutes the overall reliability of e-mail as a source of information. The more disinformation there is, the less willing e-mail users are to focus on the really important uses of e-mail as a communications tool.

Recognizing Lies

A few things typically give away an urban legend. First, consider whether the story makes sense. Is it plausible, or borderline ridiculous? Urban legends frequently walk a fine line between the two, usually with elements that sound perfectly reasonable, but with a few aspects that remain outrageous.

Oftentimes, urban legends will contain statements like, “this really happened,” or, “I checked this out with so-and-so and it’s really true.” The teller might insist the story actually happened to a friend of theirs, or might otherwise try to establish the truthfulness of the story.

Many times you will have heard different derivations of the story from different sources. It’s particularly funny to be in a group of people and hear someone begin telling the story as if it had happened to them when you just read it a couple of days before on the Internet.

Remember, if the story seems too good, too bizarre or too ludicrous to be true, it probably is. Before clicking the Forward button and sending the story, virus warning, etc. to everyone in your department, do some investigation of your own. After all, you’d never repeat a witnesses’ statement in court without verifying it, would you?

Check It Out

When I get one of these things, the first place I go is www.snopes.com. Snopes is a great reference site for checking out urban legends and other randomly forwarded Internet messages. Once on the site, you can search its database of urban legends by typing a couple of key words into the search line. For example, to check out the traffic ticket-handcuff-photo story, you might type in handcuff, photo and traffic ticket. You may get several hits, and you might find (as is the case here) the story is true. And interestingly, Snopes actually tells you a bit about the background of the story, rather than just whether or not it is true.

Other sites can help you sniff out disinformation and fraud as well. One of the best: www.urbanlegends.about.com. When you get a virus warning, check it out at http://hoaxbusters.ciac.org. To identify scams and other attempts to separate you (or your citizens) from your money, check out www.scambusters.org.

Think Before You Click

Before you click that Send button, think about how many of these messages you get every day. How do you deal with them? Many of us delete them unread, especially if we just have too many. We all have that one good friend—you know, the one who thinks everything’s cute—who has us in an e-mail list to which they forward every joke, virus warning, story or tip that crosses their desktop.

Before you become that friend, give that message a critical look. Check it out through one of the hoax-busting Web sites, then think about whether or not you’d really want to receive it. Chances are you’ll just delete it to spare your friends the trouble.                   

Steve Ashley is a retired police officer, and an active trainer and risk manager.  Steve can be reached at steve@sashley.com.

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