A teacher recently forwarded to me a disturbing series of images that supposedly documented the Feb. 1 explosion of the Space Shuttle Columbia. The message stated the pictures were taken by an Israeli satellite, and released by the U.S. Department of Justice to "hopefully give NASA a better idea of what happened." The e-mail was sent to more than 70 colleagues, who in turn likely forwarded it to countless others.
However, the so-called photographs were a hoax. No camera on any satellite was trained on the shuttle at exactly the right time; the federal government never released such pictures; and the Columbia did not explode all at once as the images suggested. The bogus graphics were rather movie frames from the film Armageddon that used special effects to depict the destruction of a space shuttle by an asteroid. Nevertheless, they circulated across the Internet as truth.
I also received a panicked message from an educator stating that everyone in her address book--including me--had contracted a "teddy bear virus" mailed automatically from her infected system. She included directions to remove the offending "jdbgmgr.exe" file and eradicate the virus.
Although my search did reveal a disconcerting teddy bear icon, this too was a hoax. The file was simply a standard program used in a Java routine, and keeping it would do no real harm. Still the news alarmed users who took the icon as proof that their machines were infected and sent the message on.
COUNTING THE COSTS
I regularly receive such hoax messages from well-meaning educators who pass unverified notices to others. These include a petition to protest government cuts spelling the end of National Public Radio, a message to help stop "Federal Bill 602" that would establish charges for e-mail, and a note about a dying girl claiming that the American Cancer Society would donate three cents for each forwarded message to "live life to the fullest." However, NPR is alive and well, there is no Bill 602, the ACS does not make such donations, and there is no technology to track messages sent out by individuals. Still, these "urban legends" continue.
Most hoax e-mail originates from pranks and attempts at humor, such as the announcement asking administrators to shut down school servers for a 24-hour period so the Internet could be "cleaned."
But while the cost in deleting one hoax from one machine is modest, significant time and bandwidth can be wasted across an entire district. "We've seen cases where e-mail systems collapsed after dozens of users forwarded a false alert to everybody," says Mikko Hypponen, research manager for F-Secure, a company that provides online security products. And, if senders find out they were duped, many send apology messages, squandering additional bandwidth.
But there are also malicious hoaxes that trick unsuspecting users into reformatting hard drives and damaging systems, and schemes to defraud, such as the scholarship scams that bilk students and parents of more than $100 million annually. Your district community therefore needs to keep up-to-date about hoaxes and take advantage of online resources that separate fact from fiction. These include the information packed guides listed below where users can quickly get information about rumors, myths, hoaxes and warnings that are circulated by e-mail.
For example, searching Snopes for "shuttle explosion" and "teddy bear virus" identifies each as a hoax. Many districts provide links to such resources, as does the Britton-Hecla School District in South Dakota. While e-mail appeals that play on fear, sympathy and greed are always suspect, directives to "send this to everyone you know" should raise red flags.
-Urban Legends www.urbanlegends.com
-Britton-Hecla School District britton.k12.sd.us
Odvard Egil Dyrli, firstname.lastname@example.org,is senior editor and emeritus professor of education at the University of Connecticut.