How to Spot An Email Hoax
How can you tell a forwarded email hoax from a legitimate article? Without researching the factual claims in a given text there's no 100 percent sure-fire way to tell it if it's a hoax, but here's a list of common signs to watch for.
Tell-tale signs of an email hoax:
- Check to see whether the text you've received was actually written by the person who sent it to you. Look for the abbreviations "FWD" or "FW" (meaning "forward") in the subject line. Does the body of the message look like a boilerplate (copied and pasted) text? If so, be skeptical. Don't assume the sender can or will vouch for the email's contents.
- Look for the telltale phrase "Forward this to everyone you know!" or similar encouragements to share the message. The more urgent the plea, the more suspicious you should be.
- Look for statements like "This is NOT a hoax" or "This is NOT an urban legend." They typically turn out to mean the opposite of what they say.
- Be wary of overly emphatic language, as well as the frequent use of UPPERCASE LETTERS and multiple exclamation points!!!!!!!
- If the text seems aimed more at persuading readers than informing them, be skeptical. Especially where political content is concerned. Like propagandists, hoaxers are more interested in pushing people's emotional buttons and/or inciting them to action than communicating accurate information.
- If the message purports to impart extremely valuable information that you've never heard of before, or read elsewhere in legitimate sources, don't assume it's true. Do some research to verify the facts before buying into it or sharing it with others.
- Read carefully. Think critically about what the message says, looking for logical inconsistencies, violations of common sense and, again, blatantly false claims. The harder someone is trying to convince you of something, the more likely they are to make errors; or tell lies.
- Look for subtle or not-so-subtle jokes, indications that the author is pulling your leg. It's easier than you think to mistake satire for legitimate information.
- Check the message for references to outside sources. Hoaxes don't typically cite sources -- nor, indeed, evidence of any kind -- nor do they link to websites with corroborating information (at least not to legitimate ones).
- Check to see if the message has been debunked by websites that specialize in investigating urban legends and hoaxes. For example, you're on one of those sites right now! Two more excellent debunking sources are Snopes.com and Hoax-Slayer.
Handy hoax-busting tips:
- Virtually any email chain letter you receive (i.e., any message forwarded multiple times before it got to you) is more likely to be false than true. You should automatically be skeptical of chain emails.
- Hoaxers usually try every means available to make their lies believable -- e.g., mimicking a journalistic style, attributing the information to a "legitimate" source, or implying that powerful interests are trying to keep the truth from you.
- Be wary of political messages. Don't take it for granted that because you find yourself in agreement with the political views of the sender that they have sent you reliable information.
- Be especially wary of health-related rumors. Most importantly, never act on "medical information" forwarded from unknown sources without first verifying its accuracy with a doctor or other reliable source.