April 01, 2008

Chain letters

I just stumbled across a very interesting article: http://www.newsweek.com/id/129976/page/1

In the past I have mentioned to several people, and will state here again, that I will not forward chain letters sent to me through e-mail or any other means. In the past decade or so online, I have made one exception to this personal eccentricity: a powerpoint presentation supposedly written by the Dali Lama. At the time I specifically pointed out that I could not confirm authorship, but felt the presentation was entertaining and meaningful enough to send anyway.

If you read the article above you will see a very good example of how deceptive and misleading chain letters are. People still send them to me from time to time. I recently received one with some lovely pictures of Butchart Gardens in British Columbia (http://www.butchartgardens.com). I added the pictures to my personal library but did not forward the mail to anyone.

Many apparently harmless chain e-mail that have achieved wide circulation over the past five years contained automatic forwarding macros embedded in them. For anyone who uses Windows, Microsoft Office, and Outlook, opening the e-mail caused it to read your address book and forward itself to every person listed. Using Hotmail as my personal e-mail is one method I've developed over the years to defeat these kind of chain letters. Only one person has been creative enough to come up with a macro that could access the Hotmail address book. Fortunately, I heard about that one before it arrived and within days, Microsoft had plugged the security gap the mail exploited.

Some of these chain letters you are receiving from your friends and family are being forwarded without your knowledge. Some of the automatically forwarded e-mails contain batch files and viruses that will modify your system in ways designed to benefit the original sender. One important example of this was circulated about three years ago with the seemingly innocent subject line, "My reCent Piktures". I received three copies of that one before it finally died. It used a macro to read Outlook and AOL address books, forward itself to everyone, and added a collection of pornographic links to Internet Explorer and AOL browsers. For those who enjoyed the links it was hilarious, for those who did not it created any number of problems both minor and major.

If you don't recognize the sender, don't open the e-mail. If the subject line contains errors the person sending it does not usually make, don't open the e-mail. If the e-mail contains facts and figures without substantiating them through genuine research links, don't believe what it says and don't forward it. If the e-mail contains some kind of sad story about a hurt child, handicapped mother, and so on, don't forward the e-mail without taking the time to confirm the story. Even if you can confirm the story, don't forward it just to assuage feelings of guilt over your own inability to do anything to help the person.

Every day somewhere around the world countless people are suffering. Instead of forwarding useless chain letters that accomplish nothing, donate some of your time and money to the Red Cross, Red Crescent, or Salvation Army. If none of the internationally recognized charities are available, contact UNESCO or even WHO.

Forwarding chain letters does not make our world a better place. People like you and me getting involved in their communities and supporting internationally recognized charitable organizations, on the other hand, can accomplish miracles.