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How to Spot an E-mail Hoax

Hoax Fairy PictureI've written about this a couple times before (actually, re-reading that second one, I still think it's pretty good and would recommend it to people who haven't read it, yet), and I've seen it written about in places far more popular than my website, but people still seem to be as gullible as ever.

I don't personally receive many hoax e-mails myself, anymore. I think I've sent enough people links to Snopes, that they've either started checking their e-mails themselves, or gotten so fed up with me that that they took me off their distribution lists. But, my wife still gets quite a few, and working at a spot where she's not allowed onto the Web to check, she'll forward the e-mails to me and ask me to check them for her.

Well, she sent me one the other day about a supposed Amber Alert, after having received quite a few from the same person. When it comes to missing children, it really seems so easy to just forward it on, and you almost feel bad being skeptical about it, but it still doesn't do anybody any good to forward on a hoax. Actually, I'd bet that if you're constantly getting fake Amber Alerts, you're not going to pay as much attention when a real one finally comes your way. The thing that really caught my eye about this one, was that it was completely missing a date, and most of the information (physical description, last location seen, etc) that you'd expect to see in such an alert. So, I was nearly positive it was a hoax before even looking it up, but I still checked just to be safe.

Well, that got me to thinking - it really is pretty easy to spot most e-mail hoaxes before you even try to verify them. So, I thought I'd post a quick list of the tip-offs I use to spot hoax e-mails.

  1. It's an e-mail Okay, that might sound a little sarcastic, but really - be skeptical of any information you get from an e-mail, especially one that's been forwarded. Much more often than not, they're hoaxes or lies.
  2. No date This is probably the biggest tip-off for anything supposedly coming from an official organization (virus warnings, amber alerts, product recalls, etc.), but applies to news and current events, as well. Even if the message might have been true originally, chain e-mails have a way of long outlasting their useful life, and may be describing something from 10 years ago or more.
  3. No references If a person on the street you'd never met before told you an outlandish story that they'd heard from their friend, who'd heard it from a friend, who'd heard it from a friend, would you believe them? So why would you believe it when it comes from an e-mail? Look for the original source of the story.
  4. Too good to be true Usually, when a story sounds too good to be true, it is.
  5. Politically related A lot of the time, people let their emotions get in the way of their good sense. If a story villifies someone's political enemies, they seem to shut off their critical thinking skills entirely (well, I guess a lot of people don't really have all that good of critical thinking skills to begin with, but that's a topic for another time).
  6. Religiously related These e-mails could go in the Too good to be true or Politically related categories, but I get so many of them that they deserve their own mention. Just because an e-mail has the word "God," don't give it a free pass. Treat it just as skeptically as you would any other e-mail.
  7. Send this email to everyone in your address book If an e-mail has a phrase like this near the end, you can almost be positive that it's a hoax.
  8. Factoids Any time an e-mail consists of a long list of trivia, you can be just about sure that most of those facts are wrong, or at the very least misleading. I've even got an article on my main website where I researched every single claim in one of those types of e-mails.
  9. It's an e-mail Yes, this bears repeating. Most chain e-mails floating around the Internet are hoaxes or lies - be very skeptical of any information you get via e-mail.

There still are some amazing true stories out there, and every once in a while I'll be surprised, when I go to Snopes (and don't forget - Snopes can be wrong, too) and learn that a story from an e-mail actually did happen. Still, with the ratio of junk to good, you're best off being skeptical of every e-mail until you've verified it.

More info: TruthOrFiction.com's "Signs of Common eRumors"

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