It is difficult to judge which hoax causes the greater amount of activity in this area: chain letters, or collecting worthless trash that somebody said would benefit a sick person.

People frequently send me chain letters in the mail, sometimes to see if I can get the Postal Service to take action against them, sometimes because they're too superstitious to break the chain themselves. They'd rather I do it, and that's fine with me.

Questions about saving empty cigarette packages or Universal Product Code (UPC) symbols more often reach me by phone. Those who call about saving empty cigarette packages are told there is no truth to the story about helping a sick child get free time on a dialysis or lung machine. If the caller doesn't believe me, I refer him to the Tobacco Institute Inc., 1776 K St. NW, which speaks for all the major tobacco companies. Those who ask about collecting UPC symbols have, until now, been told that I have seen no evidence that anybody redeems them. But Herme Wakefield of Fairfax has now led me to better information on the subject.

Mrs. Wakefield's call contained a useful bit of information. "People who work in a good-sized government office are saving Universal Product Code symbols," she said. "They have been told that for every 50 they collect, the National Cash Register Co. will contribute a penny's worth of free time on a dialysis machine for a sick child. It sounds like a hoax to me, but I wonder if you have any information about it."

"No, I don't have," I said, "but you have given me a starting point. I will make some calls and get back to you."

National Cash Register Co., indeed! Every Ohioan knows that National Cash, headquartered in Dayton, changes its name to NCR Corp. years ago - about the time electronic computer terminals began replacing old-fashioned cash registers.

I called NCR's world headquarters in Dayton and spoke to a corporate officer. In carefully chosen language he said, "The story is not true. We do market an optical scanner that 'reads' the little lines in UPC symbols. We market the scanner in connection with the sale of our supermarket computer terminals. But that is our only connection with UPC symbols. We do not redeem them."

"Do you know anybody who does?" I asked.

"I do not," was the reply. "However, you might want to talk to somebody at the Universal Product Code Council. In as much as the council is an organization that serves the entire industry, the people over there would be in the best position to know what's going on."

"Fine," I said. "You wouldn't happen to have a phone number handy, would you?"

"Yes," he said. "It's 513 - 435-3870."

When I called that number, Sharon Focht answered at the UPC Council office. I put the question to her. Her reply was: "We know of no one who is redeeming UPC symbols. No one."

If you don't believe me, you're welcome to write to the UPC Council, 7061 Corporate Way, Suite 106, Dayton, Ohio 45459. Better yet, call them at the phone number listed above. My wife owns 100 shares of AT&T stock and would appreciate the revenue.