How to Spot a Spoof

Nigerian banking scams. Phony virus warnings. Promises of fast cash. The latest health scare.

E-mail hoaxes come in many forms, but they also share common characteristics that can help you know a hoax when you see one. Be on the lookout for these red flags:

“Pass this on.” This phrase and others like it are telltale signs of an e-mail hoax. From the blatant: “Send this to everyone you know,” to the subtle: “Forward this important information to the people you care about,” any e-mail that asks to be forwarded into the inboxes of your friends and family deserves your skepticism.
You feel concerned, angry or intrigued and want to do something about it. E-mail hoaxes are designed to engage your emotions and motivate you to take action – the intended action invariably being to forward these stories to every name in your address book.

The original sender is not identified. If an e-mail is anonymous or has been forwarded so many times that you can’t trace it back to the original sender, it is most likely untrue. Even if the message claims to have originated with a legitimate organization, unless and until you can verify the source, be very wary of believing it.

The story or information is difficult to verify. More often than not, e-mail hoaxes sound factual. The idea is to get you to buy into the story without researching the facts. Tales of a conspiracy or cover-up and vague references (e.g., “my friend’s sister-in-law”) are just some of the tactics hoaxters use to discourage you from doing a quick keyword search. Another common ploy is to use technical or scientific-sounding jargon to make the hoax seem plausible and its authors, authoritative.

The timing is vague. An e-mail hoax or rumor will usually reference something that happened “last week” or “recently” but won’t provide a specific date or timetable. This is to make the misinformation seem important and relevant for an indefinite period of time. In the world of e-rumors, the less specific, the longer the lifespan.

You are pressed with an urgent and one-sided viewpoint. Again, the primary purpose of an e-mail hoax is to prompt you to hit “Send” before you can think critically about the information. All CAPITAL LETTERS, excessive exclamation points (!!!) and overly dramatic language are tip-offs that someone is trying to appeal to your emotions – not your ability to reason.

The e-mail suggests a dire and widespread threat – that you have never heard before. Health scares often fall into this category. Perhaps you’ve come across one of the now infamous hoaxes linking antiperspirant or cosmetics/shampoo with cancer. Sometimes it’s just a prank. Sometimes it’s an underhanded way to malign a particular person, product or company in order to promote another. Regardless, forwarding unconfirmed rumors only serves to promote needless fear-mongering.

“This is not a hoax.” Need we explain?

Word of mouse. Every e-mail hoax on the Internet exists because someone forwarded it to someone else, who forwarded it to someone else, and so on. When you think about it, each of these red flags plays a role in convincing you to forward a hoax before doing some basic research. To break the chain, be on the lookout for signs of a spoof and always search before you send.