If you received an email from a friend, warning of a dangerous new virus, telling you how to prevent it striking, and asking you to pass it on, what would you do? Most people want to look out for their friends, and so happily pass on the warning. Its a good move morally, but not technically, because the majority of these messages are hoaxes.
Its tempting to dismiss virus hoaxes as irrelevant, but that would be a mistake. If people waste time on trying to avoid bogus threats, theres more chance of succumbing to real ones. And worse still, if theyre later found out theyve been taken in, they might be less likely to take viruses seriously in future.
Spotting hoaxes is fairly easy because most follow a common pattern. They begin by claiming the warning comes from a big company. This is an attempt to impress you with its authenticity, but dont be fooled. The companies named might respond to virus warnings but rarely, if ever, make them. The key is that a legitimate warning would almost certainly include the address of a web page with more information, while a hoax obviously cannot.
The style of the message is another clue. Hoaxes often describe their pretend viruses in language youd never find in an official press release. Often the virus is assigned amazing powers of destruction. You should be looking for more details. Precisely who is at risk? Which operating system? Which software? Which versions? When will a fix be released? Where on the Internet should you look for it? Why is there no cure? All these details will be present in a legitimate virus warning, but tend to be missing in a hoax.
Finally, hoaxes include the advice to tell all your friends about the latest threat, because they want you to spread them thats the point. Legitimate virus warnings never include that kind of advice, so that is a very good indicator in itself.
No matter how many general indicators we offer, you are bound to receive future apparent virus warnings that include just enough information for you to believe they might be genuine. If youre not completely certain whether the message is legitimate, or a hoax, then check up on it before you pass it on. Dont rely on any one source.
Should you discover the warning is a hoax, be sure to tell whoever passed it on to you in the first place maybe theyll be less likely to pass on the next hoax that turns up. Dont get annoyed with them, because most people genuinely believe they are doing you a favor by passing on this kind of information. The best kind of response you can make is to simply tell them the threat isnt real, and pass on the URL of a site or two with more information.
Dont let hoaxes make you complacent. The ideal approach is to be skeptical at all times. Dont automatically believe these email warnings, but dont assume an attachment sent to you by a friend, or a file you downloaded yesterday, is virus free either. Check everything.
Using an antivirus program is only the beginning. There are many complex ways involved in protecting yourself from real virus threats which are beyond the scope of this article.