Some of the e-mail hoaxes offering free money from big companies have been around for years.
By CYNTHIA VINARSKY
VINDICATOR BUSINESS WRITER
YOUNGSTOWN -- No, Virginia, Bill Gates is not about to send you hundreds of dollars just for forwarding e-mails to all your friends and family.
An online chain letter that says Gates wants to "share his wealth" is making the rounds again. This one promises to pay recipients $245 every time they forward the mail to a friend, a similar amount when the friend sends it on to another, even more if it's sent on a third time, and so on.
Don't bet on it. It's a scam, and it's been around since at least 1999.
"People aren't going to be making money on this. It's a chain letter, and it's a hoax," said Beth Roman, director of marketing and public relations for the Better Business Bureau serving Columbiana, Mahoning and Trumbull counties.
The latest version, e-mailed to a Vindicator editor this week, was supposedly forwarded by an attorney. "... I know the law. This thing is for real," the writer asserts, adding that her brother's girlfriend received a check for $4,324.
Like most giveaway hoaxes of its kind, the letter has a technical-sounding hook -- in this case, Microsoft and America Online are supposedly "running an e-mail beta test" to make sure the Internet Explorer remains the most widely used program.
Roman said the BBB office used to get inundated with complaints about online chain letters promising outlandish monetary rewards, but the complaints have tapered off in recent months.
Maybe that's because consumers are more savvy to Internet fraud. Or maybe, Roman theorized, people are just forwarding the messages on "to see what happens."
What most people don't realize, Roman said, is that they are breaking the law if they forward letters that promise cash.
She cited a Federal Trade Commission brochure that states: "Here's the scoop on chain mail: If it promises any kind of return -- like money -- it's fraudulent and illegal. If you start or forward one, you could face legal action."
There are hundreds of Web sites devoted to debunking Internet hoaxes, including viruses, worms and investment scams. Hoaxbusters.ciac.org, a site produced by the United States Department of Energy, gives details on many of the most common scams, including the Bill Gates giveaway hoax.
Other giveaways promise cash rewards or gift certificates from companies such as Coca Cola, Bath & amp; Body Works, Cracker Barrel and Disney. Some hoaxes originated as long ago as 1995 and have continued to circulate.
Ken Hunter, president and chief executive of the Council of BBBs, said his organization is working with the support of Microsoft, America Online and many other large businesses to make consumers aware that the e-mails are hoaxes and to advise them against passing them along.
"These chain letters are hoaxes and in no way authorized or supported by the corporations named," he said.
The Computer Incident Advisory Capability, a division of the Department of Energy, says consumers can often identify e-mail hoaxes by common factors: technical-sounding language and credibility by association, and the use of company names or high-sounding titles. Often the technical language is fake, and the officials' names are made up, the agency states.
A red flag
"Individuals should also be especially alert if the warning urges you to pass it on to your friends. This should raise a red flag that the warning may be a hoax," the CIAC's Web site states. The CIAC says the biggest problem with hoax messages is their ability to multiply. If a recipient sends such a message to just 10 people and that group sends it to 10 others, a single message could multiply to a million by the time it reaches the sixth group of recipients.
All those hundreds of thousands of hoax e-mails can slow the mail servers to a crawl, the CIAC site explains, and create the need for a larger capacity, which increases the cost for consumers.
Another concern the Department of Energy site mentions is that bulk mailers of unsolicited mail can harvest e-mail addresses from hoaxes and chain letters, to be used to send still more unwanted and sometimes fraudulent e-mails.