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Gray Watson Personal Thoughts 2002.11.18
Irresponsible Email

Over the weekend a friend sent me the following bogus email:

Please pass this to everyone in your address book.

We have a store manager (Wal-Mart) from Longs, SC who has a 9 year old daughter that has been missing for 2 weeks. Keep the picture moving on. With luck on her side she will be found.

I am asking you all, begging you to please forward this email on to anyone and everyone you know, PLEASE. My 9 year old girl, Penny Brown, is missing. She has been missing for now two weeks. It is still not too late. Please help us. If anyone anywhere knows anything, please contact me at: ...@hotmail.com

I am including a picture of her. All prayers are appreciated!! It only takes 2 seconds to forward this on. If it was your child, you would want all the help you could get.

This sad story is a hoax and is well enumerated on the following pages:

http://www.snopes.com/inboxer/children/penny.htm
http://urbanlegends.about.com/library/blmiss7.htm
http://www.breakthechain.org/exclusives/pennybrown.html

My friend has sent me this sort of crap 5-10 times before and this one was the last straw. I responded asking him never to send me mail again unless it is a personal issue.


This behavior really annoys me. If you have had the misfortune of sending me some chain letter saying Microsoft will donate computers to orphans if I forward it, a plea to stop Congress from cutting off Sesame Street, or some other scam, then you probably got a very serious/angry reply. I probably responded to you and BCC'd all of the people who you mailed it to hopefully to shame you into proper Net behavior and to inform them to not distribute it any further.

By forwarding hoaxes and urban legends, it shows that you did not do any research before blinding resending messages out to people. Although supposedly you really do care about Penny Brown and the orphans, you can't be bothered to spend 45 seconds to validate the story. So much for your dedication.

When you forward a message on, you are attaching your name to it -- usually without comment. This adds a level of personal confirmation to the contents -- a degree of authentication. Without doing some simple research it's tantamount to passing on vicious gossip that you heard from a poor source. A story you would simply ignore if heard on the subway, you forward along to close friends with as much earnestness as you can muster because you heard it on the Net.

So few of the world's problems can be solved by forwarding email. Calling your Congress-critter, donating money and time to non-profits, and voting are good places to start to affect change if you are serious about it. If you forward a hoax to 10 of your friends without checking it out, they will take a minute to read it, and then they may forward it onto to 10 of their friends, etc.. You will be directly responsible for hours of wasted productivity.

These days I am 99% skeptic to all things that I hear on the Net and my skepticism is rarely disappointed. Messages which say to forward this to all of my friends are instantly suspect. I use a number of resources to verify and validate a story including the following.

If I cannot find anything supporting or repudiating the story then I usually just delete it or ask the sender what the source of it is. If it is humorous or interesting then I might just add a note that I cannot find any corroboration for (or against) this but it's a good story or something.

In addition, by forwarding on mail and leaving in the email address of others, you are basically broadcasting your friends' email addresses for others to see/use. This is a way that companies collect email addresses for spam mail lists. Please make sure you trim the message down to remove previous headers whenever you rebroadcast things. I've published some information about protecting email addresses on my MailNull site.

Please, in the future, spend 45 seconds to make sure that you aren't wasting your coworkers', friends', and family's time.

All of this said, the story about the couple with 3000 pounds of lumber on the roof of their VW Jetta, is (as far as I can determine) a true story. My skepticism alarms would have rejected that one for sure.


From the Urban Legends page, here are some helpful ways to detect hoaxes.

  1. Consider the form of the information passed along to you. Is it a story with a beginning, middle and end? Does it have a 'punch line' similar to a joke?
  2. Note whether the story was told AS IF true. Often the teller of an urban legend will even begin with the statement, 'This is a true story...'
  3. Look for statements like 'This really happened to a friend of a friend' (or 'the wife of a co-worker,' or 'my brother's housekeeper's son,' etc.).
  4. Have you heard the same story more than once from different sources, with different characters and details?
  5. Consider whether there's evidence to indicate the story you've heard is false and/or there are common-sense reasons to disbelieve it.
  6. Does the story seem too good to be true, too horrible, or too funny to be true?

Check books and websites about urban legends to see if the story is listed there.

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