How Can I Avoid Being Fooled by Internet Myths?

February 27, 2009

in Internet,privacy & security

by Gabe Goldberg

The Internet is often like a big echo chamber: some yodels never die out — they echo from user to user, growing ever fainter, until someone sends them to a new mailing list or set of friends and they come roaring noisily back to life. Google “Craig Shergold” for an example of something that was real, is long outdated, and which keeps circulating.

If you’ve been online for a while, you likely receive abundant email every day, including jokes, spam, hoaxes, and alleged urgent warnings of terrible danger. But how can you tell a real threat from a bogus hoax?

First, a good rule is to never forward — in fact, you should ignore — anything which urges you to “Forward this to everyone you know.” Especially if you don’t recognize the sender.

Legitimate warnings never say that; they’re sent directly to people who’ve subscribed to them or are customers of the sender. Certainly well-meaning people forward such notes but anyone who adds the urgent “Forward this to everyone” instruction doesn’t have much credibility.

But what should you do if you receive a plausible warning from a supposedly trustworthy source? Fortunately several Web sites verify claims and warnings, and also unmask frauds.

My favorite hoax debunker is You can search this site by category (food, travel, science, sports, and many more) or simply enter text from the note you’re checking out. (It’s best to search on a text string likely unique to the note, rather than something like, “Forward this to everyone you know.”)

For example, a common hoax theme is carjacking. Searching Snopes for this word finds nine hits. But searching Google for “carjacking hoax” yields almost 22,000 hits. In fact, when I’m checking something out, I usually consult Google — again, using a distinctive phrase. I’m often led to Snopes, but many other sites also report on rumors, myths, and hoaxes. More than a few times I’ve received dire warnings about new methods being used for carjacking, fed a clue to Google, and within a minute sent debunking links back to earnest but misguided email buddies.

And many hoax descriptions make entertaining reading!

A special category of warning deals with virus and other malware threats. These can be legitimate or bogus but it really doesn’t matter: if you practice “safe computing” — run credible anti-virus and anti-spyware software and keep them updated, install operating system and application security patches, don’t click on mysterious links, etc. — specific warnings don’t really matter to you. It’s more important to be consistently safe than to worry about the “threat of the day.”

Gabe Goldberg (, a lifelong computer pro and technology communicator, has written three books and hundreds of articles for audiences including techies, baby boomers and senior citizens. He enjoys sharing tips and pointers that help people use and have fun with technology.