The letter from Claudia Duncan of Gaithersburg was apologetic, but there was no reason it should have been. A chain letter is a pain in the hindquarters any time, all the time. And it isn't everyone who has a forum like mine. So I'm pleased to do what Claudia asks: publicly break yet another chain, and warn the rest of you about this one and the legions like it that are still doing the rounds.

According to postal inspectors, most chain letters are still like those you used to send and get in grammar school: mail a dollar to the top name on the list, then sit back and await your promised million.

But lately, the inspectors say, more and more chains have religious and superstitious overtones, with no money asked or given. Such was the case with the letter Claudia received.

Mail 20 copies to "friends, parents, associates," it said, and within a few days "you will get a surprise" -- sudden wealth or a better job. Of course, the letter doesn't explain how, or offer any proof.

But break the chain, and look out: "Selon Fairchild received the chain letter and, not believing in it, threw it away. Nine days later he died," the letter "reports."

Claudia's letter specifically urges the reader not to send anyone any money, thus sidestepping the possibility of a felony charge of mail fraud. However, it is at least arguable that anyone who mails that letter is using the postal system to harass someone -- also illegal, but not necessarily a felony. I've never gone to law school, but if this letter isn't harassment, I'd like to know what is.

As long as there are photocopying machines and people who believe in the impossible, I suppose there'll be chain letters. But there won't be as many if you report every one you receive to postal inspectors at 523-2557. Then use the letters to line the bird cage. That's about how much they're worth.