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Urban legend emails spread on Web

September 29, 2011

Photo by Colin Deppen - Email accounts worldwide are being inundated with hoax emails that warn of threats and violence. Computer experts agree that the best policy is not to open emails from unfamiliar sources, and if opened, not to forward them.

Widely circulating emails warning readers of new tactics being utilized to lure susceptible motorists out of their vehicles are unsubstantiated, according to several sources.
One such email says that gang members are attempting to prey on good Samaritans by placing a child's car seat with a "fake baby in it," or "bloodied blanket draped over it," on the roadside. It goes on to read that, "When you get out of your vehicle in an attempt to help, the gangs jump out of the cornfields or bushes."
The email cautions readers not to get out of their cars and to instead call the police.
The message is often disguised as a news alert or announcement from law enforcement officials. One such version begins,"There is a gang initiation reported by the local police department that gangs are placing a carseat by the road..."
The email has various incarnations, and is often formatted like a chain letter, instructing readers to forward it to family and friends.
According to myth-debunking website snopes.com, this particular email began circulating in 2009, when an employee of the Tennessee Department of Corrections sent out an unsanctioned warning.
Another email in a similar vein warns motorists, "if you are driving at night and eggs are thrown at your windshield, do not turn on your wipers and do not spray any water on it because eggs mixed with water become milky and you will not be able to see!"
It goes on to read, "You will be forced to stop beside the road and become a victim of thieves. This is a new technique used by gangs. Please inform your friends and relatives. These are desperate times and these desperate individuals will take desperate measures to get what they want."
This threat has also been debunked by snopes.com, which says that both eggs and water are thin liquids that are "relatively easy to see through." The site also gave accounts where police officers reported having their cruisers pelted with eggs but were still able to chase down the culprits. 
In response to these types of alarming emails, snopes.com reports law enforcement officials as having said, "We have not turned up any reports of any gangs (much less simultaneous efforts by gangs all across the country) using carseats as lures to entice motorists out of their vehicles, nor do any of our police contacts recall encountering any such activity."
The Department of Homeland Security classifies what they refer to as, "chain letter emails," into two categories: those which seek to defraud users into sending money or personal information and those designed to warn users of a threat.
The department's website advises that when dealing with incendiary emails or email scams, it is important to consider three things before forwarding the message to others: First, does the email ask you to send it to a lot of people?; second, does the email fail to provide confirmation sources?; and third, is the language in the message itself or the subject line overly emotive, such as "Danger!" or, "We must always be on guard!"?
The website also says that a good way to check if a message is a hoax is to conduct an Internet search using a key phrase from the message. This will often bring up one or more reputable articles that clearly indicate if the claims in the message are true or false.
Angela Barber of Ang's Computer Barn in Johnsonburg says she has not come across the chain letter emails personally, but that she always instructs her clients not to click on or open anything if they don't personally know the sender or have reservations about its origins. Barber added that, "Some emails, open or not, can contain viruses," and suggested that even unopened ones be deleted from the inbox, as well as from the deleted items box or trash of the email account.
Barber said that a possible motive behind the chain letter emails may be the compiling of lists of email addresses for sale to companies for marketing purposes. This tactic, also known as spamming, is a method through which email addresses are collected. The process repeats itself until the list reaches a certain amount of entries, at which point the email, now containing hundreds of email addresses and names, is sent back to the composer. The more an email, circulates the more addresses can be harvested. The chain letter format is a way for spam to bypass spam-buster settings because it has been sent by someone in your address book.
"Somebody, somewhere, is benefitting from it," Barber said.
Some familiar with email spamming and hacking say that the act of posting bogus emails may not necessarily provide a monetary gain for creators, but rather the thrill of seeing how far it will go. Regardless of the intent behind them, experts agree that it is best not to open these types of bulk emails and if opened, best not to forward them to anyone else.

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