Imagine a scenario where you sit down in the morning to get your daily email fix and open your first email. You are initially taken aback because it states, "!HURRY - if you don't read this right away, follow the instructions, and pass to everyone ASAP a virus will infiltrate your system and blow YOUR COMPUTER TO BITS!".
These days one of those emails would sound like a gross exaggeration and most people immediately know it's a hoax. However, at one point those types of emails did truly take Internet users aback when it landed in inboxes. Another famous one told the email recipient that everything on their computer would be deleted if he or she did not follow the email's directions. Someone not familiar with virus hoaxes (or a computer novice) may wonder why someone would send such ominous message and may also wonder whether or not it's real.
What's the Point of a Virus Hoax?
Receiving urgently worded panic emails like the one above were once a common occurrence. These kinds of messages are what has become known as an email virus hoax. More often than not these messages were designed with the intention of creating havoc and fear, but they were mostly nothing to worry about. The biggest problem with these is that they were huge time wasters and clogged up inboxes.
While probably not nearly as common as they once were in the above format, they do still crop up from time to time, usually spoofing Microsoft or another big tech company. Most of these no longer warn of a computer blowing up; however, there are still plenty of hoax emails that are political in nature, designed to target financial or identity theft or play on one's emotions, which can lead to downloading or going to websites where there are real viruses.
(Additionally, hoaxes appear to now surface in the form of videos, images and online articles which are released on social media.)
What if One Lands in an Email Box?
Malware is serious business and you do not want to be infected by one, so it is a good idea to first check the authenticity of the message you receive before following any of the instructions contained within the text. There are several ways you can do this, and most of the time you'll probably discover the email is indeed a fake.
While researching suspected hoax emails takes a few minutes of time, it is often good for peace of mind. Further investigation will reassure you your instincts are correct and that the email is indeed a hoax. Additionally, there are some tell-tale ways to distinguish hoax vs. authentic warnings.
Look Carefully at the Email
Take a look at the specifics of the email and look for the tell-tale signs of a hoax.
"PASS THIS ON!"
Does the message in the email direct you to quickly send it to others? Legitimate announcements are not structured this way nor do they ask you to spread the word by forwarding emails. They also won't put out an announcement in all capital letters or use exclamation points to stress the urgency of the message. This is unprofessional at best, and legitimate companies will never use these types of attention grabbers.
Does the Email Propagate Fear?
Does the message you received clearly send an ominous message of doom? If so, this is usually a hoax because the author of the email wants to spread fear across the Internet. Many scammers pull fear out from their bags of social engineering tricks.
Examine the Structure of the Email
If you look at the structure of the email and examine it closely, hoaxes are notorious for containing errors. For instance, is the grammar and spelling correct? Granted, some email hoaxes look professional, but usually there are mistakes somewhere in the text. After evaluating a few of them, you'll begin to recognize the signs through errors and sentence syntax.
Has It Been Forwarded Many Times?
Has the message that reached your inbox already been forwarded numerous times? If so the chances are the recipients did not check valid sources and in a panic hit the forward button and sent to everyone in their address book. Usually another tell-tale sign of a hoax.
Does the Email Have a Date?
Is the message dated? "This information was released on Tuesday" is not a professional announcement. A broadcast released by a legitimate organization would list day and date of release of the announcement. If there is no date listed, there is high probability the message is a hoax.
Who is the Original Author?
Sometimes this isn't a tell-tale sign, but usually hoaxes contain a made up name and title of an official-sounding person in order to make the message appear more authentic. Doing a quick search to see if such an agency exists is a good idea to see if you can find the name associated with the email. Keep in mind, some of these scammers do use the names of real people.
Check with Anti-virus Vendor Websites
If any software maker sends a warning, it's going to be on the company's website or in the news. Anti-virus vendors typically outline current virus and other common exploits. They also list the currently identified viruses to look out for according to risk factor. This is a great tool to help you determine authenticity or probability of infection.
Do Some Research
You can also look to other reliable sources of information. For instance, websites, such as Snopes, Hoax Busters and Hoax-Slayer, are typically up to date with the latest hoaxes circulating the Internet. They will list the email text and give you a truth or fiction status of the email. There are many other good websites and agencies that will also list hoax virus messages to help you weed out truth from false messages. Let your fingers do the typing and see what search engines pull up.
The Problems with Email Hoaxes
Hoax messages do not cause the same type of damage that viruses do, but they are harmful because of the fear they generate and the network resources they tie up. Another noteworthy point is once in a while the hoax email will include a malware infected attachment or instructions to rid yourself of "bad" files. This is important to be aware of because often the hoax author's intention is to convince recipients to delete important system files which will cause damage to their computers or to install a file which will cause harm.
If you receive one of these messages of impending doom, don't panic. Even if the virus warning does happen to be real, keep your anti-virus program is up to date and make sure you scan your computer regularly. Delete emails where the sender is unknown and do research when the sender does appear to be known. When you take precautions you will decrease your risk factor.
You can be rest assured your computer won't crash if you don't follow the explicit directions in spam emails. Most importantly, make an effort to become educated on viruses and the ways you can effectively avoid them. Being proactive is a good step to take to reduce the chances of being infected by malware.