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12/29/2003
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The Privacy Lawyer: Don't Get Fooled Again

Do E-mailed claims sound too good to be true? They probably are.

It's been years since the "Gates E-mail forwarding" and other famous E-mail hoaxes hit the Net, so a whole new generation of Internet users, those who use instant messaging instead of E-mail, has never seen them. We can expect a resurgence of these hoaxes with a few updates. Remember the postal service "tax on E-mail" hoax? I still get questions about this. While sitting on an expert panel at the European Commission, I was approached by a famous politician asking if it was true that the U.S. Congress attempted to tax E-mails, and how I thought they had the authority to tax international communications. If you missed it the first time around, here's the hoax E-mail:

"Dear Internet Subscriber:
Please read the following carefully if you intend to stay online and continue using email: The last few months have revealed an alarming trend in the Government of the United States attempting to quietly push through legislation that will affect your use of the Internet. Under proposed legislation, the U.S. Postal Service will be attempting to bilk email users out of 'alternate postage fees.'

Bill 602P will permit the federal government to charge a 5 cent surcharge on every email delivered, by billing Internet service providers at source. The consumer would then be billed, in turn, by the ISP. Washington, D.C. lawyer Richard Stepp is working without pay to prevent this legislation from becoming law.

The U.S. Postal Service is claiming that lost revenue due to the proliferation of email is costing nearly $230,000,000 in revenue per year. You may have noticed their recent ad campaign, 'There is nothing like a letter.' Since the average citizen received about 10 pieces of email per day in 1998, the cost to the typical individual would be an additional 50 cents per day, or over $180 per year, above and beyond their regular Internet costs. Note that this would be money paid directly to the U.S. Postal Service for a service they do not even provide. The whole point of the Internet is democracy and noninterference. If the federal government is permitted to tamper with our liberties by adding a surcharge to email, who knows where it will end. You are already paying an exorbitant price for snail mail because of bureaucratic efficiency. It currently takes up to six days for a letter to be delivered from New York to Buffalo. If the U.S. Postal Service is allowed to tinker with email, it will mark the end of the 'free' Internet in the United States. One congressman, Tony Schnell (R), has even suggested a '20- to 40-dollar per month surcharge on all Internet service' above and beyond the government's proposed email charges. Note that most of the major newspapers have ignored the story, the only exception being the Washingtonian, which called the idea of an email surcharge 'a useful concept whose time has come' (March 6, 2003, Editorial). Don't sit by and watch your freedoms erode away!

Send this E-mail to all Americans on your list and tell your friends and relatives to write to their congressman and say, 'No!' to Bill 602P. (quoted from the Urban Legends Web site)

What Can You Do About It?
There's something about a message that arrives on a computer that gives it credibility. But you should never believe everything you read online, no matter how reliable you think the underlying equipment might be. Messages are generated by people, and people are sloppy, careless, and sometimes malicious. They are also extremely gullible when technology is involved. Heck, maybe it's not only when technology is involved: I worried about those sewer alligators for years.

Luckily, there are several great Web sites you can refer to when you get your next E-mail announcing Armageddon or offers too good to be true. These sites will help you decide what to pay careful attention to and what to ignore. If you want to see whether the "latest news-breaking horror of the week" E-mail is a hoax, you can go to the experts. Symantec, the maker of Norton AntiVirus (www.symantec.com/avcenter/hoax.html or www.symantec.com/avcenter), McAfee's Security page, Carnegie Mellon's Software Engineering Institute's CERT Coordination Center, and the U.S. Department of Energy's Computer Incident Advisory Capability page are places you can trust to help you separate fact from fiction. Before you forward any E-mail proclaiming the latest hoax/announcement, check it out at one of these sites. It's good Netiquette and a good way to preserve your credibility. If you know someone who's rumor-mongering in cyberspace, tell them, too. Otherwise, ignore anything they send you or tell them to remove you from their rumor mailing list.

If you suspect an E-mail that's trying to elicit personal credit-card or financial information from you is a spoof, report it to the Federal Trade Commission, the U.S. government Internet Crime Complaint Center, or the company being spoofed. You can also report it to WiredSafety.org, the online safety group I run, which will notify the company being spoofed on your behalf. (Check back next time for an article on "phishing" schemes.)

In addition to spreading confusion and fear, the avalanche of E-mails that follows in the wake of a fresh rumor can clog up your work server. As one employee copies his best friend in sales, another is copying a car-pool member in human resources. Before you know it, nothing can get through the E-mail server that isn't related to that one rumor. A good privacy and Internet-use policy refers to passing along unconfirmed rumors and tells employees where they can report what they hear about new viruses and threats. But if you make an address available, make sure it's always staffed. Early-warning systems can help to avoid large crashes and data loss from the latest virus, if the reports are true. And if the systems-management staff learns about the newest rumor in time, they can provide a proactive message to avoid wasted bandwidth and time.

The bottom line: If something sounds too good to be true, it's too good to be true. And if it sounds crazy, it is. Make sure your brain is engaged when you are online so that you and your server don't become the latest victims of cyberhoaxes, rumors, and urban legends in cyberspace.

Continue to the sidebars: From Nigeria With Love...
and Criminals Are Made, Not Born


To discuss this column with other readers, please visit the Talk Shop.

To find out more about Parry Aftab, please visit her page on the Listening Post.

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