Email Spam: What Goes Around Comes Around?

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Spam may be little more than annoying email. Then again, it might just steal your identity or drain your bank account.

A good friend of mine just sent me an email warning me about the dangers of turning on the air conditioner in my car without opening the windows first. The email explained that the car’s dashboard, seats, vents, etc., all contain "benzene, a cancer-causing toxin" and that by keeping the windows closed with the air conditioning on, I was putting my life in danger because along with causing cancer, "benzene poisons your bones, causes anemia and reduces white blood cells. Prolonged exposure will cause Leukemia and increase the risk of some cancers. It can also cause miscarriages in pregnant females."

Pretty scary stuff, huh?

The email also said, in part, "please pass this on to as many people as possible." The writer appealed to the recipients’ sense of morality by adding "Thought: When someone shares something of value with you and you benefit from it, you have a moral obligation to share it with others." Past recipients of the warning had obviously done just that because I could see that four people had already passed this on to hundreds of email addresses before I received it.

In the event that any of the recipients had any doubts about the accuracy of the information, the writer pointed out that he had vetted the story with Snopes, an online site well known for exposing email hoaxes.

But while many people who received the email responded by praising the originator for notifying them of of this risk. I took a slightly different tack by sending out an email of my own. It read:

When it comes to email forwards, here are the rules:

  1. If someone sends you something with the admonition to "send it to all your friends," don’t! This is usually a sign of a scam.
  2. If something is so important that you must send it, check it out yourself, rather than taking the message’s word for it. If you had checked out the benzene story, you would have found that it’s false.
  3. If you pass anything on, delete all email addresses in the message. By forwarding these around, you put those people at risk.

Sounds harsh, right? Good thing that forward came from an old and good friend. I don’t think he’ll take offense, but this is a much more serious issue than some people might think. In the best-case scenario, it simply contributes to the already tremendous amount of spam circulating online. It also, of course, has gullible recipients behaving in an unneeded fashion. In this case, the results aren’t too serious, at least not this time.

However, there could be even more going on here. The original email may contain a virus or worm, in which case the fear-inducing message is only designed to help spread it to thousands of recipients. Viruses can be benign, only creating annoying pop-up ads while you’re trying to work, or insidious, stealing your identity and passwords, or sending themselves off to all the contacts in your address book. (Learn more about some of the nasty things that circulate online in Malicious Software: Worms and Trojans and Bots, Oh My!)

Even if the original spam message is virus-free, there’s always the chance that the spam will return to the spammer, who will then be able to harvest the email addresses therein to perpetrate more spam.

If you’ve been online for a while, you’ve probably received some kind of spam or scam or forwarded message, such as from a friend’s email address, stating the person is in a foreign country, has been robbed and needs you to wire them funds to get out of a bind. Fortunately, many such requests smell like a rat – often as a result of being written in poor English. However, I do know of people who have sent money in response to such pleas, only to discover the so-called victim was safe and sound at home, and completely unaware that the email account had been taken over by a hacker.

A scammer might also gain access to your account just to read all your email in search of information about where you do business. Then, they’ll send a very official looking email with the appropriate logo on top telling you that your account has been compromised and that you must sign on to a special address and furnish your account number and PIN to keep the account open. Those who follow through soon find that all their funds have been drained via electronic transfer to an off-shore account. I know a student who fell for this and lost $1,500. Although the bank eventually made it up to him, it put a real crimp in his plans for a while.

What Goes Around Comes Around?

You might think an email forward is no big deal, but the reality is that the great cyber world (much like the real world) is filled with people who’ve learned to use it for their own personal financial gain. It may succeed in doing little more than sending you an annoying email. Then again, spam can be used to steal your identity or drain your bank account. Just as we must be vigilant about the impact that technology may have on our careers, we must be cognizant of the personal dangers it presents to us. That means keeping our eyes open, staying educated about online dangers and trying to avoid becoming part of the problem. And the next time you get an email encouraging you to forward it to everyone you know, you’ll know to do just the opposite. (You can also find out how to block spam before it hits in Too Much Spam? 5 Technologies Designed to Block It.)


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John F. McMullen

John F. McMullen lives with his wife, Barbara, in Jefferson Valley, New York, in a converted barn full of pets (dog, cats, and turtles) and books. He has been involved in technology for more than 40 years and has written more than 1,500 articles, columns and reviews about it for major publications. He is a professor at Purchase College and has previously taught at Monroe College, Marist College and the New School for Social Research. MucMullen has a wealth of experience in both technology and in writing for publication. He has worked as a programmer, analyst, manager and director of…