When the economy takes a hit, the hoaxers come out of the woodwork to prey on those desperate for money during tough times. But exactly what is a hoax and how do people recognize when they are being scammed? The traditional definition of a hoax is “an act meant to trick or deceive.” (Merriam-Webster.com). But the process of being “hoaxed” can often involve so much more. The hoax definition can range from virus warnings to email hoaxes meant to solicit money or information, to a hoax website that masquerades as a legitimate business.

A Recognizable Pattern

Hoaxes often follow a distinctive pattern in their appeals to the public for donations or offers of free money. And the hoaxes can range from an appeal to the natural inclination to be greedy or to the charitable impulse when confronted with a heartbreaking or pitiable situation. Often the scam involves donations for a sick child or the victim of a natural disaster. Or it may be the offer of a quick money scheme.

Most hoaxes involve an initial appeal that will contain words like:

  • URGENT!!!
  • WARNING!!!

Exclamation points and all capital letters are often used to draw the reader’s eye in and to give an urgency to the message.

  1. The hoax will invite the reader to immediately share the email with “all your friends” or “everyone in your address book.” This is an implication that it’s necessary to “get the word out” to anyone in danger of being affected, but it’s really a way to gain access to your address book and contacts.
  2. There are always “dire consequences” if the reader doesn’t heed the message. You will lose money, someone will die, and a missing child will not be found in time. The hoaxer always makes the reader feel as if the failure to follow through will harm someone, cost money, or result in a lost opportunity. It implies a sense of desperation and that the reader must act now to avoid the consequences.
  3. Hoaxers like to reinforce the idea that “this is not a hoax!” Of course, it is a hoax, but very often the repetition of this phrase can lull readers into a false sense of security. If that isn’t sufficient, hoaxers will imply that the scam has been vetted by a reputable investigation site like Snopes.com. Hoaxers count on people being too lazy to actually check this out, and generally, it works.
  4. There will be marks in the left margin – >>>>> – that indicate people have forwarded the message quite a few times before it has reached you. This should be a tip-off that the claims are dubious or that you are being scammed.

In her book Cyber literacy: Navigating the Internet with Awareness (Yale Univ. Press, 2008), author Laura Gurak cites three elements common to hoax emails:

  • The hook – This is a sad story, a request for help, or a notification of a computer virus that will cause your computer to crash with the loss of all your data and information.
  • The threat – This element warns you that something bad will happen to you or some other innocent individual if you don’t pass the email on to all your friends immediately.
  • The request – This can be merely a request to send the message to everyone you know or to make a donation to an official-sounding group or “charitable” organization.

When the hoax comes from someone you know (whether through an actual transmission from a friend or through an email that purports to be from someone you know), it carries the ring of authenticity. This is why hoaxers encourage you to send the email to everyone you know. Phishers can gain access to your contact list in this manner, and the fact that the email comes from a friend or acquaintance lends authenticity to their representations.

The Classic Scare (as if we didn’t already have enough to worry about)

Some hoaxes are just meant to scare the recipient and the public at large. Often playing upon a pervasive fear that has been in the news, the “scare hoax” presents dubious information and the hoaxer is only concerned with frightening the public for his/her own amusement.

One current scare hoax involves the disease Ebola. An Internet rumour has been circulating claiming that the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has been “forced to admit” that Ebola has mutated and become airborne. This claim is not true, in fact, most scientists believe that it is a very remote possibility that Ebola will become airborne, however, the hoax plays upon the paranoid “siege mentality” of the public and encourages them to believe that there is a world-ending event just around the corner.

The same tactic was used with the Y2K “crisis” and the Mayan Calendar claims, and it plays upon the belief that the government is “hiding something” from the public. With the exception of companies selling gas masks and hazmat suits, this hoax doesn’t really benefit anyone financially but is calculated to frighten the public and increase the paranoid fantasies of anti-government types.

Debunking the Hoax

It’s a simple matter to debunk an email hoax. All one needs to do is google hoaxes on the Internet and several websites will come up that maintain a database for readers to use to differentiate between the numerous hoax emails and virus hoaxes circulating on the Internet.

It’s surprising how long some of these hoaxes have been around, and they always seem to increase during times of difficulty, economic downturns, or during national elections. The problem is that these phoney claims and innuendos have an indefinite shelf life and continue to circulate for years.

The virus hoax is a typical one that feeds on the paranoia of Internet users by making the public fear they will lose all their computer information. In an age when computer users often store much of their lives on their computers, this is an effective scare tactic. A virus warning can send Internet users into a frenzy if they feel they will lose all their financial information or be vulnerable to scams.

Some of the more accessible sites to use for diagnosing a hoax email are:

  • Snopes.com – This site has been unravelling Internet hoaxes and scams since 1995 and is operated by a husband and wife team, Barbara and David Mikkelson. It is extremely reliable, with a large database of Urban Legends, hoaxes, scams, and information, and has been endorsed by a number of news agencies.
  • Hoax Busters – An Internet site operating since 1999, Hoax Busters has an extensive database and has been featured on the Today Show as a reputable site for investigating a possible hoax email. They advocate “Safe Computing” and endorse several anti-virus programs, spyware systems, and firewalls for Internet users.

For anyone who uses the Internet daily and for users of social media, a reliable hoax debunking site is a must. And for anyone who cares about whether the information they pass along to others is accurate, investigating hoaxes and protecting one’s computer is important. It pays to be informed and vigilant in today’s Internet atmosphere.