I've become well-known at the office as the guy who, upon receiving one of those forwarded emails from a co-worker, will immediately go hit up Snopes to find out if it's true. Of course, one might question the reliability of Snopes itself, but in all seriousness, if it's been in a few hundred inboxen and the truth of the matter can be found, Snopes will find it.
It astounds me that anyone could get a few of these emails and not start to develop a healthy case of cynicism about what shows up in their inbox. Not long ago, I heard a co-worker (who will remain unnamed to protect the guilty) ranting about how members of Congress have a taxpayer-funded pension system that pays a full cost-of-living adjusted salary for the rest of their lives, and that they don't have to pay into Social Security. Knowing Congress, people readily believe this, but it's bunk. He'd never admit it if he was confronted directly, but in a little, unexamined part of his brain, he's saying, “I know it's true! I read it on the Internet!”
So I'm here to help. I have a simple, straightforward rule that correctly determines whether or not a personal email is bogus 99% of the time—way better than weather forecasters or stock market analysts. Here it is:
If an email's subject line starts with “FW:”, it is bogus.
I am completely serious. Follow that rule, and you'll be right so often that in many peoples' minds it will border on the supernatural. But if that person you're thinking of right now that just can't help but hit the forward button would like a bit more detail, here are some additional things to check:
- Does Snopes say it's a hoax? I've occasionally ran into something that wasn't already covered by Snopes, but usually they've already done the grunt work, and they always provide authoritative sources.
- Does the message urge you to forward it to everyone you know? This is the whole point of the hoax. Why legitimate messages are less likely to do this is explained further on.
- Does the email claim that someone can tell if you forward it? There is no reliable way to count the number of people to which you forward a message, and nobody's going to pay anybody else because you forwarded it. Bill Gates didn't get rich by throwing money away, so you can bet he isn't going to be sending you a check because you spammed your entire address book. The Red Cross isn't going to donate money for a sick child because you forward an email, either, even if they could tell that you did. Charitable organizations like the Red Cross receive donations.
- Does the message properly cite sources? Political and virus emails, in particular, are notorious for spewing facts and not backing them up with reliable sources. That doesn't mean just name-dropping, it means giving you a link to the official web site of the source where you can confirm the information for yourself.
- Is the original author anonymous? If someone stands by their claims, they put their name to it.
- Is the (alleged) original author famous? Famous people don't do these things by email because email isn't authoritative. They put what they want to say on their web site. So if you get an email that says that political candidate A said X and Y about political candidate B, you can almost guarantee that candidate A has already posted something on their web site refuting it. An email can come from anywhere, but if candidate A's web site says something, then candidate A is saying it. That doesn't mean candidate A isn't deluded or lying, but at least you can confirm the source. Besides, candidate honesty is a whole separate issue.
- Is the email vague on the specifics (names, dates, places)? It may seem like a waste of time to you and me, but hoax emails don't just materialize from the ether. Someone decided that they had time to sit down and write it. However, they usually don't take the time to make the story believable beyond the first glance. Authoritative stories will give names for those involved, say when and where the described events happened.
- Does the email stress that its contents are “completely true,” “perfectly legal” or “not a hoax?” If they have to say it, odds are, it's a lie.
- Does the message claim to give information that not many people know, or that some organization doesn't want you to have? This is just a hook to get you to believe. After all, who doesn't like to be “in the know?”
- Is the message unprofessionally written? Hoax authors are notoriously bad writers. If you see spelling errors, ALL CAPS, or multiple question/exclamation marks in a row, it's a hoax.
- Does the message warn you about an unusual way to die, become injured or contract a horrible disease, or give an unorthodox solution to preventing it? Fear of death and pain are strong motivators, and are therefore effective ways to get people to buy in on what you're saying. You may have heard of the practitioners of this method in the real world; they're known as quacks.