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E-mail hoaxes abound

BY HEATHER MOYER | BOSTON,MA | October 15, 2001

"We received hundreds of inquiries about it, and all we had to do was call the FBI -- they confirmed that it is false."

—Bill Orvis

The text appears as though a friend is just trying to warn you:

"My friend's friend was dating a guy from Afghanistan up until a month ago.

She had a date with him around 9/6 and was stood up. She was understandably upset and went to his home to find it completely emptied. On 9/10, she received a letter from her boyfriend explaining that he wished he could tell her why he had left and that he was sorry it had to be like that. The part worth mentioning is that he BEGGED her not to get on any commercial airlines on 9/11 and to not to go to any malls on Halloween. As soon as everything happened on the 11th, she called the FBI and has since turned over the letter."

It's a hoax, said Security Specialist Bill Orvis, who works with the Computer Incident Advisory Capability (CIAC) division of the U.S. Department of Energy.

"When I first saw this e-mail, it looked false," he said. "We received hundreds of inquiries about it, and all we had to do was call the FBI -- they confirmed that it is false."

CIAC operates the HOAXBUSTERS Web site, where users can log on to look up false warnings, bogus consumer offerings, and fake viruses, among other hoaxes.

Other hoaxes that circulated via e-mail after the Sept. 11 attacks included a picture supposedly taken from the top of the World Trade Center of a plane coming at it, stories of certain companies having terrorist ties, and an e-mail claiming that Nostradamus had predicted the attack years ago.

And there's a new one -- about how Ryder and Verizon are reporting that more than 30 of their trucks are missing, assumed to be stolen by terrorists, Orvis said.

It isn't surprising that people are taking many of these false threats seriously, said Orvis. "People are worried right now, they might wonder 'If I disregard this email, and people die -- is it my fault?' " he said.

Orvis added that he has his own concerns. "Even I worry. I tell people that these hoaxes are false, but what if someone takes one and actually makes it real?" he said. "There are risks, but we need to know that if there's a risk out there, you'll hear about it from the FBI or another agency."

Orvis also said because of the current atmosphere that FBI officials are investigating all e-mail hoaxes and any leads they get. The amount of people that receive these e-mails only adds to the hysteria, he said. Orvis said that these e-mails go out in geometric progression. "Say I send one to ten people, then each of those ten people send it to another ten and so on," he said. "These things spread so quickly, before long there are millions of these e-mails out there."

Orvis said it often doesn't take long to prove an e-mail is false. Often it just takes a few phone calls. He warned the public to not always believe what they read via e-mail. "One way you can tell a forward is probably fake -- especially ones about terrorist threats -- is by looking at the bottom of it. Does it say forward this to everyone so they know? Then it's probably fake," he said.

Orvis said it's not likely that you'll hear about severe terrorist plans or threats via e-mail, rather you should believe the ones that actually are reported by the FBI on TV or radio or in the newspapers.

CIAC provides on-call technical assistance and information to Department of Energy sites faced with computer security incidents. Orvis said they were receiving so many calls about various computer hoaxes, from viruses to chain letters, that they decided to save themselves some time and create a Web site. In early 1995, the HOAXBUSTERS Web site was created. Orvis said the site is extremely popular and gets millions of hits every year -- even more now that terrorist-related e-mail hoaxes circulating.

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