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Breaking the Chain

My article on chain mail in TidBITS-324 elicited more responses than I’d anticipated. They fell into a couple of categories that I found interesting, and I thought I’d share some of the information with you.

Creative Responses — Several people wrote in with creative responses to chain mail messages. One group keeps a list of ten volunteers who are willing to receive chain mail messages from anyone within that organization who can’t bring themselves to break the chain of a "bad luck" message. Needless to say, those ten volunteers delete the messages to ensure that the chain goes no further, and the people who forward the mail don’t worry about a spate of bad luck.

There’s also a clever piece of chain mail that frees "its recipients from the need to send future chain-letters." I have no idea how effective it is, but it should confuse the superstitious types (what happens when you have one chain mail note promising good luck if you send it along, and another promising bad luck if you do?).

A number of people requested my boilerplate response to chain mail messages I receive. My impression is that many people feel uncomfortable informing the senders of chain mail of what they’ve done wrong, especially since people who forward chain mail seldom act out of spite. This bit of text is no masterpiece of prose, but feel free to use it as a reply to anyone who sends you chain mail.

"By forwarding that message to me, you have participated in electronic chain mail, which not only irritates everyone involved but is also an abuse of the Internet. You have allowed someone to exploit you for their purposes. Even worse, you have helped them exploit even more people and waste more time, bandwidth, disk space, and money. It’s bad enough to be a victim, but it’s worse to become an accessory. If everyone forwarded every piece of chain mail to the number of people requested, normal email delivery would grind to a halt, thanks to the exponential growth of chain mail. Please do not ever forward chain mail again."

Finally, Mark Horne <[email protected]> comments:

For chain letters that involve sending money via the U.S. Mail (which is illegal, and commonly referred to as a "ponzi" scheme), you can alert the United States Postal Service by sending a hard copy of the offending document to:

Postal Inspector In Charge

United States Postal Inspection Service

Operations Support Group

222 South Riverside Plaza

Suite 1250

Chicago IL 60606-6100

They’ll investigate, send warning letters or take legal action as appropriate, and send you a letter explaining what transpired (it may take a long time, however).

< chainlet.htm>

What about worthy causes? Several readers wrote in to say they felt chain mail about worthy causes was justified in some instances. I feel there is no cause worthy enough to justify abusing the Internet via chain mail. Those that use chain mail to promote a cause risk far greater damage to their reputations. Using chain mail for worthy causes suffers from two basic problems.

First, even if the information in a piece of chain mail was accurate at one time, situations change. The classic piece of chain mail is the one that requests that postcards be sent to Craig Shergold, a dying boy in England. Guess what? Craig was cured, he’s quite a bit older now, and the postcards keep coming, overwhelming the local post office. Craig was a classic good cause, but chain mail turned his wish for postcards into a nightmare.

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Second, there are without a doubt a ton of good causes. If they all decided to use chain mail in order to raise money or gain support, the Internet would be swamped. Then there’s the issue of differences in opinion – your good cause may be my anathema, and vice versa. Of course, once a good cause proved successful, how far behind would the con artists and scam mongers be? The only way to deal with chain mail is to stop it whenever it rears its head.

Worthy causes can use other tools available on the Internet to garner support. For instance, the Web is ideal for disseminating information. You can update a Web page with the latest information so what’s disseminated is never inaccurate. A Web page can also provide source information so people can check for themselves and decide if they agree with you. You can even collect names for an online petition on a Web form.

Identifying and Analyzing Chain Mail — I’d like to leave you with a few bits of advice on how to identify and analyze chain mail.

  • Look for specifics, especially a cut-off date, a court case number, or an FCC docket number. Most chain mail doesn’t contain much specific information, because otherwise people would see that it was a hoax.

  • Look for an authoritative source. Who is the message from originally? Who forwarded it to you? (Be wary if you don’t know the person who forwarded it.) Remember, it’s easy to forge email. Also, if the message doesn’t come with an email address or Web page from which you can get more information, it’s likely to be chain mail.

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< chain.letter.petitions.html>

  • Verify the situation. Recently there was a furor over a proposed newsgroup called The first chain mail message I saw exhorting people to vote against the group didn’t contain the call for votes (CFV) and without the CFV, there was no way to tell when the voting would end. Research in DejaNews revealed the voting had been over for almost a month, but the results hadn’t been released. You must take everything with a grain of salt, but the more information you have, the better.


  • Finally, don’t be gullible. Just because something appears in an email message doesn’t mean it’s true or has any bearing on reality. Think before you act and encourage others to do the same.

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