An E-mail Challenge

April 3, 2008
Put a stop to e-mail hoaxes that clutter our mailboxes by learning how to check on their authenticity.

Picture of floating sand

The subject line said: “Pleeeeeeeeeeeeaaase Forwarddddddddddddd.”

I was curious because I’d received some forwarded e-mails from her that were rather interesting. Yet the way the letters were drawn out caused me to open it with some trepidation. Would this be yet another chain letter informing me that if I don’t forward it around the globe, the gods of the Internet will be angry and I’ll have bad luck for the rest of the week?

Turns out that when I opened the e-mail — forwarded from a dozen senders to more than 200 people — I saw a picture of a little girl who had been badly burned in a tragic fire in Poland. Below the picture were these words:

“Alexandra came out of a fire alive, but now has to fight for her life and a normal future. She is 14 months old and she has burnt skin all over her body, damage facial bones (as a result of very high temperature). She does not have half of her face. She is in hospital in Krakow – Poland and one of the best specialist is looking after her. However she still has to go through many surgeries and then long rehab. Unfortunately her parents do not have any more money.

“Therefore we are asking for your help. For each forwarded e-mail her parents will get 3 cents. Please help them and forward that e-mail to as many people as you can!

“If you don’t forward this___you don’t have a heart!”

If I didn’t forward it I wouldn’t have a heart? How about, if I forwarded it, I wouldn’t have a brain? Stop and think for a minute. WHAT is the mechanism by which forwarding the e-mail will help her parents? WHO will donate the funds? HOW will the people who supposedly distribute the fund know how many people have forwarded the story? As tragic as the little girl’s story is, even more disheartening is the willingness of people to send the story all over the Internet without checking to see whether the story is even true.

If anyone in the list of e-mail-forwarders (is there such a word?) had taken a few moments to look at a hoax-checker website, as I did, what he or she would have found on the Snopes page of Alexandra (Olenka) Kuczma would have caused him or her to stop the e-mail in its tracks. At least I hope it would — if they valued the time their friends had to spend in scrolling down, down, down, down through the forwards in order to get to the core, inaccurate, message. Besides, most of us don’t want to be responsible for passing on a false statement.

Unfortunately, the story of Olenka Kucama began circulating around the Internet in 2005 and joins other “3 cents for each forwarded e-mail” scams, as you will learn if you read American Cancer Society Hoax. And while it is true that the girl was burned and will need help for many years to come, there is no way the parents are going to receive even one cent because someone somewhere in the world forwarded an e-mail to a friend, let alone three cents for each forwarded e-mail. Fortunately, in exploring the topic I learned that there is a Polish TV station website that offers information about Ola’s bank account if you wish to donate funds. Unfortunately, you have to read Polish to know what it really says.

The E-mail-Forwarding Challenge

It’s beyond me why the person who created this hoax would have done it in the first place. But why allow the fraud to be perpetuated among your friends?

So my new challenge is for you to take a good hard look at e-mails you’ve been sent when they contain an impossible picture, or if they tell a story that tries to tug at your heartstring and make you feel irresponsible if you don’t send it on. Your friends, and I, don’t need any more fake virus information, missing child e-mail hoaxes, Internet dating scams, bogus warnings, computer security scans, payment transfer job scans, celebrity e-mail hoaxes, charity hoaxes, e-mail chain letters, and those endless foreign beneficiaries of large fortunes who need your help to collect them.

All of this leads up to my E-mail-Forwarding Challenge — a challenge which is designed to strengthen your fraud detector:

Although it’s not possible to always know whether an e-mail is for real or not, whenever you receive something suspicious, either don’t forward it at all, or at least first go to one or more of the following sites:

Pleeeeeeeeeeeeaaase! Determine the authenticity of any e-mail with pictures that are outrage
ously improbable and stories that sound too incredible to be true BEFORE you forward it!

If you don’t want to accept my challenge because you’re too busy and “hope” the story or picture is true, at least PLEASE do a favor to all of us who don’t want our e-mail addresses spread around the world where spammers can capture them. Remove the addresses, if not the names, that are attached to the e-mail when it is forwarded. Even if an e-mail is absolutely on the up-and-up and worthy of being forwarded, take a moment to eliminate the email addresses. You and I may not take advantage of addresses we find on forwarded e-mail, but that doesn’t mean someone else would be as scrupulous.

Go Ahead and Forward “Floating Sand”

What is nice about taking my challenge is that you can quickly find out what part (if any) of the story in an e-mail is authentic and what is blatantly false — before sending it on to an unsuspecting friend. Even more, sometimes will you learn a great deal you would not have known otherwise.

For example, recently I received an e-mail called Floating Sand with the picture at the beginning of this blog and a caption that said it was a trail left by the yacht “Maiken” through “sand” that floated on top of the water. Yeah, sure. That makes sense. So I immediately went to Hoax-Slayer and found their piece on Floating Volcanic Stones and New Island in the Pacific. It’s true. According to the website:

“The images in the email were taken from a post on the blog operated by Fredrik Fransson and the crew of the yacht ‘Maiken’. In August 2006, the Maiken was sailing in the South Pacific near Tonga when it came across a large area of floating volcanic stones (pumice). When lava with a high gas and water content erupts from a volcano and then cools it can produce pumice, a very light rock material filled with gas bubbles. Pumice is the only kind of rock that can float on water. A large mass of pumice floating on the ocean surface is known as a “pumice raft”.

“The Maiken attempted to sail into this massive pumice raft but was soon forced to turn back”

So that’s what left the wake shown in the picture above. Floating volcanic stones. Who woulda thought!

Sending that e-mail to friends would be appropriate e-mail-forwarding in my book.

Tell Others About “A Stroke of Insight”

A friend who often sends me both strange and inspirational e-mails sent me one recently called “Stroke of Insight.” It was a video, and transcription, by neuralanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor who had an opportunity few brain scientists have had, or would wish for. One morning, she realized she was having a massive stroke. As she felt her brain functions slip away one by one — speech, movement, understanding — she studied and remembered every moment. Eight years later she offered a powerful story of recovery and awareness and describes how our brains define us and connect us to the world and to one another.

It appeared on the TED Blog, which has a number of such pages and videos that are well worth forwarding. TED, which stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design, started out in 1984 as a conference bringing together people from those three worlds. Expanding past its original scope, the annual conference now brings together the world’s most fascinating thinkers and doers, who are challenged to give the talk of their lives in 18 minutes.  Then the site makes the best talks and performances from TED available to the public, for free. Almost 200 talks from their archive are now available, with more added each week. These videos are released under a Creative Commons license, so they can be freely shared and reposted.

I think your friends would find an e-mail with a link to that material quite interesting.

E-mail for a Publisher’s Special

Forwarding information about a resource that would be genuinely helpful to your friends is always fine. For example, if you wanted to tell others about my E-mail-Forwarding Challenge, you could send them a link to this article.

One thought on “An E-mail Challenge

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