Scam Spam: Identifying Those Pesky Internet Hoaxes

By Rev. Michael L. White

Before getting into our topic, let me take a moment of personal privilege. This issue marks the one-year anniversary of The Church Online column in The AWF Advocate. It hardly seems it has been that long, but I guess calendars don't lie. Anyway, I just want to take time to thank Andy Ellis for his editorial support not only for the writing and publishing of this column, but for the entire AWF Advocate magazine which he produces so superbly each quarter. We are truly blessed in our Conference to have such a high caliber editor and communications device as we have in both Andy and the AWF Advocate.

Now, on to this issue's topic. I'm sure if you've been a recipient of emails for even a short time, you've already received numerous pieces of "junk mail" (called spam, after a cheap, mostly undesirable brand of canned meat) promising you the world, or issuing dire warnings of imminent danger or death. There are several categories of spam: chain letters (an Internet version of the same thing we used to get in regular mail, which promise good luck if you pass them along to specified numbers of people, or bad luck if you don't), commercial offers, virus warnings, calls for help or prayer for sick or missing children, urban legends, etc. If you're unfamiliar with the term urban legends, these are realistic-sounding stories of horrible events that happened to someone, and these scams are purporting to warn you to avoid the same fate. One example is the untrue story that some maniac is placing HIV-infected needles in the coin returns of public pay phones which unsuspecting people discover by accident--after they've pricked their fingers checking for returned coins. As realistic and frightening as this may sound, before forwarding it to everyone in your address book, take a little time to verify its authenticity. To me, the most annoying aspect of these emails is not so much their falsehood (though that's bad enough) as that they're forwarded repeatedly by completely na´ve folks. With a little information, however, you can overcome this na´vetÚ. This is my reason for writing this article.

The purpose of this column each quarter is to educate you on the finer points of using computer technology in ministry. Ministry, like commercial business, is hampered--even halted sometimes--by the bog of this sort of scam spam. Moreover, a ministry's good reputation is on the line if one of its members forwards any of this junk. Therefore, I want to provide you some places on the Web to go to from now on before you forward even one more realistic-sounding virus warning, call for help or prayer, or urban legend. I ask you to bookmark these URLs in your Web browser, so you can return frequently to read updates of what are the latest hoaxes circulating on the Internet. Doing so will help you avoid the embarrassment of forwarding outright lies with no other purpose than to play a practical joke on you and clog up traffic on the Information Highway.

Following is a list of some of the most popular hoax debunkers on the Internet. There will certainly be overlap among them, but you may find some things on one that you won't find on another. I recommend you create a separate folder to store these sites in your Favorites or Bookmarks (depending on whether you're using Internet Explorer or Netscape, respectively) and name it Hoaxes, so you can find it easily next time you want to access them for updated information. Then, next time you receive one of those astonishing stories by email, check these sites to see if it's already been debunked and listed before you click on the forward button. Now, here's the list:

Current Internet Hoaxes

F-Secure Security Information

Hoax Busters

Symantec Security Response - Hoax Page

AFU & Urban Legends Archive

The Hoax Kill Service

Urban Legends: Don't Believe Everything You Read

Urban Legends Reference Pages