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US-CERT Cyber Security Tip ST04-009 -- Identifying Hoaxes and Urban Legends

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                      Cyber Security Tip ST04-009
                  Identifying Hoaxes and Urban Legends

   Chain letters are familiar to anyone with an email account, whether they are
   sent by strangers or well-intentioned friends or family members. Try to
   verify the information before following any instructions or passing the
   message along.

Why are chain letters a problem?

   The most serious problem is from chain letters that mask viruses or other
   malicious activity. But even the ones that seem harmless may have negative
   repercussions if you forward them:
     * they consume bandwidth or space within the recipient's inbox
     * you force people you know to waste time sifting through the messages and
       possibly taking time to verify the information
     * you are spreading hype and, often, unnecessary fear and paranoia

What are some types of chain letters?

   There are two main types of chain letters:
     * Hoaxes - Hoaxes attempt to trick or defraud users. A hoax could be
       malicious, instructing users to delete a file necessary to the operating
       system by claiming it is a virus. It could also be a scam that convinces
       users to send money or personal information. Phishing attacks could fall
       into this category (see Avoiding Social Engineering and Phishing Attacks
       for more information).
     * Urban legends - Urban legends are designed to be redistributed and
       usually  warn  users  of a threat or claim to be notifying them of
       important or urgent information. Another common form are the emails that
       promise users monetary rewards for forwarding the message or suggest
       that they are signing something that will be submitted to a particular
       group. Urban legends usually have no negative effect aside from wasted
       bandwidth and time.

How can you tell if the email is a hoax or urban legend?

   Some messages are more suspicious than others, but be especially cautious if
   the  message  has  any  of  the  characteristics  listed  below. These
   characteristics are just guidelinesâ??not every hoax or urban legend has these
   attributes,  and  some  legitimate  messages  may  have  some of these
     * it suggests tragic consequences for not performing some action
     * it promises money or gift certificates for performing some action
     * it offers instructions or attachments claiming to protect you from a
       virus that is undetected by anti-virus software
     * it claims it's not a hoax
     * there are multiple spelling or grammatical errors, or the logic is
     * there is a statement urging you to forward the message
     * it has already been forwarded multiple times (evident from the trail of
       email headers in the body of the message)

   If you want to check the validity of an email, there are some websites that
   provide information about hoaxes and urban legends:
     * Urban Legends and Folklore - http://urbanlegends.about.com/
     * Urban Legends Reference Pages - http://www.snopes.com/
     * TruthOrFiction.com - http://www.truthorfiction.com/
     * Symantec Security Response Hoaxes -
     * McAfee Security Virus Hoaxes - http://vil.mcafee.com/hoax.asp

     Authors: Mindi McDowell, Allen Householder

     Produced 2004 by US-CERT, a government organization.

     Last updated August 25, 2009.

     Note: This tip was previously published and is being re-distributed to increase awareness.

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