|Should I forward these urgent emails to all my friends?
You've seen them. Most sound plausible, some are creepy or even frightening, some are heartbreaking, and a few are completely ridiculous.
If you've been using email for any length of time, well-meaning friends or colleagues have probably sent you email messages that combine an urgent warning with a strong request to forward them to everyone you know:
- "Don't open emails that say 'postcard' (or 'hi there' etc.), it's an unstoppable computer virus! AOL admits it's true! Send this to everyone!"
- "Forward this email and get money from Microsoft--my uncle's a lawyer and he says they have to pay you!"
- "If you find this file on your computer then you're infected with this horrible destructive virus! Norton can't stop it!"
- "Help find this missing girl!"
- "Forward this and God's grace will be with you."
- "All cell phone numbers will be released to telemarketing companies, who will be calling you at your expense!"
- "Add this entry to your address book and you'll stop spam forever!"
- "Forward this chain letter or experience bad luck!"
- "Sign and forward this email 'petition'!"
- "Let's all boycott this national gas station chain on the same day and help lower gas prices!"
- "This food cures cancer!"
- "Here's more proof that this celebrity or politician or company is evil (or anti-American or immoral etc.)!"
These messages often combine the following elements:
What I recommend you do
- A claim of harm or danger or cost or benefit to you or someone else.
- An earnest "pitch" giving some sort of compelling story or reason or background.
- A claim (usually very vague) that the information comes from some named or unnamed authority, lending authenticity to the message.
- An urgent call to action--usually to forward the message, visit a web site, send money, etc.
- Sent to you by someone you know, which adds to the apparent credibility.
It's so tempting and easy to forward these messages to others, and you may also feel that doing so lets you participate in a larger good cause. Unfortunately, the vast majority of these messages are hoaxes, rumors, urban legends, misinformation, or outright lies. Instead, I urge you to:
Other negative consequences from forwarding
- Stop: There really isn't any urgency. The message may have convinced your well-meaning friend or colleague to forward it to you, but you can break the cycle. The people who write this fiction want to manipulate you and your friends into believing and acting without thinking.
- Think: Be skeptical. Could this really be true? Does it make sense? Does it cite legitimate sources? Or will my forwarding it just waste everyone's time?
- Research: Spend 5 minutes doing a Google search on the key words from the email (or check with a friend who's familiar with the particular subject area) and I'm confident that you will find that it's either completely false, an urban legend, a gross oversimplification of a much more complicated issue, or that it has only a grain of truth, and that it's been circulating around the internet in one form or another for years.
- Reply: Send a reply (not Reply All) back to your well-meaning friend, share the results of your research, and gently ask them to do their own research before sending such things to you in the future. In my years of experience doing exactly this, one of three things eventually happens: Your friend simply stops including you in their forwarding; your friend starts asking you first if the claim is true; or your friend learns to do their own research.
- Delete: Do you really have the time to participate in this?
If you're still tempted to forward such messages, consider these additional negative outcomes:
- You're spreading personal information (names and email addresses) about you and all of the other previous recipients who are mentioned in the message you received, unless you "clean it out" first.
- You're spreading personal information (names email addresses) about you and all of the people you choose from your own address book, unless you use BCC to keep those addresses hidden.
- You may be wasting your time doing this.
- You may be wasting everyone else's time.
- You're adding to the already-enormous amount of daily worldwide email traffic.
- You might be damaging your own reputation if the claim turns out to be false or if someone finds the message offensive in some way.
- If you forward instructions on how to remove or prevent a supposed computer virus or problem, consider the possibility that the instructions themselves might be malicious (e.g., "delete this file, which will actually make your computer stop working" or "visit web site X, which will actually try to infect your computer with a virus"), or that someone might make a mistake trying to follow well-intentioned but poorly-phrased instructions and thereby create a problem (e.g., "delete these files to make your computer run faster").
- If you forward the message to a large number of people, you might get branded as a spammer by your ISP (Comcast, Verizon, AOL, etc.) and be suspended from sending email until you call and ask to be reinstated.
Of all the "urgent--forward this!" messages I've received over the years, the only one I can remember that sounded plausible was one giving general advice to women to be on the alert for muggers when bringing groceries out to their cars in large parking lots. Conclusion
I'm not suggesting that you should never forward anything. I've received (and forwarded) interesting news stories, compelling stories of personal triumph, and breathtaking photographs from all over the world. I'm simply suggesting that exercising a little common sense can go a long way towards reducing the spread of time-wasting misinformation. Where to go from here
If you're confused or frustrated by something on your computer, I like to say, "You can do it!" You might just need a little encouragement, or information, or change of perspective, and that's where I come in.
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I love helping people learn how to use their computers better! Like a "computer driving instructor," I work 1-on-1 with small business owners and individuals to help them find a more productive and successful relationship with their computers and other high-tech gadgets.