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 January 11, 2001      TIPS to search 1billion Web pages fast!

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Lindsay Pereira

"Women in Afghanistan desperately need my help."

"The Dalai Lama wants me to spread the message of love to 96 people immediately, following which I can help myself to a week’s worth of good fortune."

"Tommy Smith, a ten-year-old in Oregon, needs my prayers (and a dollar if I have it) to help him recover from a recent surgery."

"I can send a message to 40 people I know, and save three people in Vietnam from dying of starvation."

Three years ago, I’d do the needful, almost a once. I’d rush to click that ‘Forward’ button as many times as possible, contacting old friends and renewing newer acquaintances simply to clear my conscience and feel good about saving one soul per day.

Now, I’m a little wiser. Just a little.

The thing about chain letters that annoy most people is the ease with which they spread, clogging mailboxes, wreaking havoc, leaving servers open to virus attacks, and basically just getting in the way of routine mail checks.

Unlike our obsolete postal service, the Internet as a medium makes it incredibly easy to send a message to an unlimited number of people, all with a mere click. Recognising the threat to security, lots of online services prohibit these letters. As you and I know very well, however, they’re far from over.

The Curse of a Thousand Chain Letters calls itself an ‘e-mail house of horrors,’ explaining the dangers of e-mail forwards and offering you lots of frightening examples. An important issue it brings up is that since chain letter technology has become more dangerous, some of them can cause tremendous damage when opened. Remember the ‘I Love You’ virus?

So what are they, really, apart from annoyances you wish you didn’t have to deal with on a regular basis? The site categorises email chain letters into Generic Chain Letters (which are relatively harmless), Entertaining Chain Letters (the most common, that usually just tell a joke or funny story), and Hoaxes. The latter are the most serious, relying usually on trickery to force messages along to others. Some are alarming in tone, others confuse you into forwarding them, and still others employ cheap lies like that of ‘suffering children’ to get sympathy.

Yet another site to check out is Vmyths, that lets you learn all you ever wanted to, about computer virus myths, hoaxes, urban legends, hysteria, and their implications. Apart from a searchable alphabetical list of computer virus hoaxes, it has a comprehensive FAQ that tackles common queries like ‘How can I quickly tell if a chain-letter virus alert is a hoax?’, ‘I received a virus alert from an authoritative source. Should I forward it to my friends?’, and ‘How often do you scan for viruses?’

Then, in keeping with a wish you and I have probably had for a long time, Chain Letters Central gives you access to an archive of over 1169 chain letters, jokes, forwards, fake virus warnings, surveys, petitions, ASCII art, and every other form of ‘e-mail junk imaginable.’ It helps because you can check mail you’ve just received and see whether or not it’s a hoax. It also enables you to pick one you ‘like’ and mail it to someone. What you send depends on your own degree of malevolence, of course.

Some theories surrounding the creation of these chain letters suggest the incorporation of Urban Legends, those archetypal tales that spread in varying forms containing elements of anything from horror and humour to the rules societies live by. The archives here cover legends in topics as diverse as books, children, politics, religion, science, sex, animals, and classics.

The Internet, needless to say, spawns dozens of sites that inform, warn, and analyse these letters, hoaxes, viruses or whatever you wish to call them. A column by David Spalding called Hoax du Jour for example, makes you privy to the latest hoaxes and ‘cyberban’ legends. Email Folklore is a fairly large collection of frequently forwarded mail, organised by subject. On another note, The Truth about Chain Letters actually delves into how some of these letters can be used -- and are-- to make money.

If you’re completely uninterested in the phenomenon, an anti-chain letter article entitled ‘Chain Letters and How to Defeat Them' should help. It also has a lot of links you could check out.

As for me, I’ve become a cynic.

I don’t patronise forwards, refuse to help kids in distress, and even use chain letters as an excuse to keep away from good old fashioned advice. As a last resort, I have posted my opposition to these letters at the Anti Chain Mail Entente (ACME). It tells me how I can get chain letter protection that makes these hoaxes a thing of the past. ‘Stop the chain,’ shrieks the home page.

What I fail to figure out is how, in spite of this, I still got a message from some Godman in Chandigarh this morning, promising to make me a politician if I forwarded his message to ten of my closest friends.

The drama continues.

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