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  The Navigator: Web Weasels
By Linton Weeks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 10, 1998




From the get-go, the Internet has attracted shysters, charlatans and mountebanks. The person behind the Disney Email Tracking letter is among the latest.

Several readers – including Dorothy A. Terry and Christine Barakat – recently sent along a popular e-mail making the rounds. The correspondence alleges that the Walt Disney Company is working with Bill Gates and Microsoft to compile "an e-mail tracing program that tracks everyone to whom this message is forwarded to. It does this through an unique IP (Internet Protocol) address log book database.

"We are experimenting with this," the note continued, "and need your help. Forward this to everyone you know and if it reaches 13,000 people, 1,300 of the people on the list will receive $5,000, and the rest will receive a free trip for two to Disney World for one week during the summer of 1999 at our expense."

The letter was signed, "Your friends, Walt Disney Jr., Disney, Bill Gates, & The Microsoft Development Team."

Despite the fact that the letter was (1) way too good to be true, (2) littered with grammatical and typographical errors and (3) signed by Walt Disney Jr., who doesn't exist, lots of gullible people gobbled it up and sent it on. Several news organizations, including the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Chicago Sun-Times, debunked the offer in print.

But here's the beauty of the Web. You can check these things out yourself. Problems are created on the Web; problems are also solved.

CIAC image From the CIAC Web site
   
If you suspect you might have received a fraudulent message, click onto the Computer Incident Advisory Capability section of the Department of Energy Web site. The CIAC provides information on chain letters and hoaxes. It even offers historical context for some scams. The Disney Giveaway hoax, for instance, can be traced to a November 1997 chain letter allegedly sent by Bill Gates.

The International Computer Security Association Web site keeps tabs on Web schemes like the Disney drivel. The association also combats truly destructive viruses. Roger Thompson, director of the association's virus lab in Carlisle, Pa., says people continue to fall for Internet fraud because "they're silly."

But bamboozlers abound. There is even a risque Web site where you can Create Your Own Hoax. One version warns of a pending virus that will bring about the end of the world. "The ONLY WAY TO STOP THIS," the hoax reads, "is to e-mail your bank account and PIN numbers IMMEDIATELY to the person who just sent you this secret message. There is no other possible solution. Do it NOW! You have been warned."

Many of the hoaxes that are born on the Web, such as the ones above, or Tom Petty Is Dead or Free Nike Shoes, are stupid and harmless. A serious virus hoax, on the other hand, can cause great and widespread trouble. When the so-called Good Times virus appeared several years ago, Thompson spent much time alerting computer users that the virus was not real and the alarm was false. When perpetrators released a genuine virus, and also called it the Good Times virus, "it was," recalls Thompson with a sigh, "a real pain."

Linton Weeks can be reached at weeksl@washpost.com

Surfing
Perturbations, pleasures and predicaments on the I-way

Oh! The Spam of it All!
Ever since "spam" became shorthand for junk e-mail, Hormel Co., the premiere canner of spiced chopped jellied mystery meat, has gobbled up attention from unofficial spam-sites. Now Spam has launched its own official site complete with sales catalogue for geek-wear (caps, mugs, boxer shorts, computer toys), recipes, a $39 party pack and links to Spam fan clubs. Most intriguing is the interactive timeline describing the critical role of Spam in 20th-century history – wartime shortages, bomb-shelter larders, hobo fare and the like.

Downplayed is Spam's place in the diet of South Pacific Islanders who savor a tin of Spam as others might crave foie gras. According to travel writer Paul Theroux, this might have resulted from World War II cargo cults that viewed military supplies as manna from Heaven. No word on whether Spam accurately replicates the taste of human flesh for which residents of the antipodes are said to have had a yen.
L. Peat O'Neil

Deipnosophists, Unite!
Here's a site guaranteed to help you win Bob Levey's word contest. The World Wide Words site is devoted to oddities of the English language, from usage, to maps of turns of phrase, to definitions of new words, to derivations of words currently in the news. You'll find peculiar words – deipnosophist is a master of dinner table conversation – next to reviews of new dictionaries and links to other sites for word lovers. — Edward Mickolus


Found something intriguing, improbable, insane or especially useful on the Net? Write it up and send it to Joel Garreau or Robert Thomason.
   
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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