When is a Hoax not a Hoax?

Embarrassingly, I keep catching myself promising to come back to a topic and never getting round to it, however often I try to blog here. (The server is gradually filling up with my half-completed drafts!) There are just too many interesting things happening and not enough time to record them all here – this isn’t, after all, my primary job.

But I did promise you a little more on hoaxes and chain letters – actually, a specific hoax which I’ll get to in a while. First of all, I’d like to mention a specific chain letter that circulated for a while at a medical research organization I worked at some years ago. This particular email demanded that all recipients send it on because of the perceived danger from fake black cabs.

It’s not uncommon for old cabs to be sold off and find their way into the possession of private owners (I’ve known one or two people who bought one). The "danger" was said to be from private individuals posing as cab drivers who would then commit crimes against women. That particular chain letter doesn’t seem to have survived, perhaps because while it had the shock factor, it wasn’t specific enough. People seem to like their urban legends to have a "real" horror story as the hook more than a vague "look what might happen!" message.

I was reminded of it by an article I came across by accident today. Ironically, it concerns a real cab-driver and serial rapist. The significance of that particular chain letter, to me, though, is that it came at a time when chain letters were starting to move away from the classic hoaxes about impossible "viruses" that were the most common manifestation of chain email at the time, towards something more ambivalent – I’ve tended to refer to them as semi-hoaxes in other writings on the subject.

Here’s a more recent example, forwarded to me by a former colleague: the subject "A 3-year-old girl named Reachelle Marie Smith is missing. "

IF YOUR CHILD WAS MISSING WOULDN’T YOU PRAY THAT  EVERYONE PASSED THIS EMAIL ON?!!!
PLEASE DO THE RIGHT THING AND LOOK  AND FORWARD.

A 3-year-old girl named Reachelle Marie Smith is missing.  

You never know where  this e-mail could end up and I’m not going to stop passing this one around  if it means a little girl can be found!!!

Please spread this  picture far and wide….You just never know, someone you know, might know her!

PLEASE, BEFORE YOU DELETE THIS, LOOK AT THE CHILD AND THEN LOOK AGAIN.
IF YOU CAN, PLEASE SEND THIS TO EVERYONE IN YOUR ADDRESS BOOK. IT TAKES ONLY 10 SECONDS AND COULD HELP LOCATE HER.
THANK  YOU!

There’s also a poster, not included here, that includes information about the suspected kidnapping, including a photograph and description of Leigh Cowan, the suspected kidnapper, and his van.

As with somewhat similar chain letters last year referring to Madeleine McCann it’s hard to escape the emotional pull of this communication, and some attractive pictures of the child add to poignancy of the appeal. However, it’s not all as it seems. According to snopes.com, always a good resource to check with regard to any chain letter or suspected hoax, Reachelle has been missing since mid-May 2006 and is now 6-years-old, if she’s still living. It’s likely that even if she’s still recognizable from the photographs, her physical dimensions have changed dramatically. And Cowen, her presumed kidnapper, apparently committed suicide a few days after she went missing.

I guess that someone might recognize her from one of the photos at http://www.snopes.com/inboxer/missing/reachelle.asp, but this mail illustrates a persistent problem with information disseminated by chain letter. Even if it was true originally, time and mutations introduced deliberately or inadvertently as the message travels make the information less and less useful.

When I worked for the UK’s National Health Service, our mail servers were frequently found buckling under the strain of chain letters relating to children orphaned by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, long after the children concerned had been identified and/or their relatives found, and the original information was completely obsolete.

David Harley BA CISSP FBCS CITP
Director of Malware Intelligence

Author David Harley, ESET

  • Eveline Goy

    Dear Mr Harley
     
    You might be interested to know that the MISSING GIRL email re Rachelle Marie Smith is now being distributed in Australia.
     
    Of course our hearts stop when we think of the anguish of parents whose children go missing, but the email is really not helpful. Rachelle would now be 7 years old and God knows where she might be, if she is still alive.
     
    I do not pass on chain mail, and would not mind if there was more material telling the public about the unhelpful consequences of passing on large chain letters. I found your advice on the web, having googled the missing girl message. Anyone can do it.
    Good luck with stopping this crazy trend. Too often I have felt huge pangs of guilt because I "refused to help". I have now come to terms with the idea – the guilt was never mind.
    Kind regards
    Eveline Goy
    (Grandmother)

    • Thank you, Eveline. It seems to me that the most pernicious aspect of the “new generation” of chain letters, Facebook hoaxes and so on is that while they aren’t always maliciously intended and in a few rare instances may actually be useful, they almost invariably work by shamelessly exploiting the the emotions of the recipient in ways that are not at all justified. As a parent and grandparent myself, I’m all too aware of the feelings of guilt you mention, but I often “guilt-tripping” used by hoaxers in very different contexts.

      I’ll probably return to some of the issues you raise in a new blog in the very near future.

  • Showcase Listing

    Yeah, it is interesting when you see all those chain letters like that. Sadly, I ignore them because there is a vast majority of hoaxes.

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