Anatomy of an e-mail chain letter

Anatomy of an e-mail chain letter: By Amy Virshup. Why did so many people forward an obviously bogus message about a Bill Gates giveaway?

Published September 22, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

Like anyone with an e-mail account, I get forwards all the time -- dirty limericks about Monica Lewinsky, pleas from cancer children who want to set the world record for most business cards received (who knew there was a world record for most business cards received?), incessant warnings against opening up anything headed "Good Times." Most of these die an untimely death on my hard drive. (OK, the limericks I pass along.) But the other morning, I got a forward I just couldn't resist. It came from a colleague at the magazine where I work and, after the usual seemingly endless list of headers, read like this:

"Hello Disney fans, and thank you for signing up for Bill Gates' Beta Email Tracking. My name is Walt Disney Jr. Here at Disney we are working with Microsoft which has just compiled 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 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. Enjoy."

It was signed, "Your friends, Walt Disney Jr., Disney, Bill Gates, & The Microsoft Development Team" (wow, Bambi and Bill together!). My friend, who has asked, nay, begged to remain anonymous, had appended a note of his own -- "... who knows?" -- and zipped the thing along to me and 19 other people, many of them fellow journalists.

The promise of a free visit to Orlando wasn't what intrigued me, since it was clearly a hoax. (Walt Disney and his wife, Lillian, had two daughters but no male progeny.) But why were so many people so willing to believe the letter? Their happy faith in the corporate beneficence of Microsoft and Disney shone through in the exclamation-point-heavy notes they'd added at each iteration of the message: "Maybe we could all pick the same week and have ourselves a big party in Disney World!!!" "Mickey, here we come!!!!!!!" "See below and see you in Disney." (In the past, hoax e-mails about Microsoft have been decidedly more sinister -- like the one about the company's hostile takeover of the Catholic Church.)

As it turned out, we were all getting in on the chain fairly late in the game. A version of the message had circulated on the West Coast weeks before (it left out Disney, only required the e-mail to make it through 1,000 people and promised a payoff of $1,000 and a free copy of Windows 98). And when I called Microsoft to find out when I could expect my check, spokeswoman Kimberly Kuresman directed me to the archive of Bill Gates' syndicated columns, in which he'd written about the message back in March.

It seems someone had sent Gates a copy of the e-mail, which he'd officially declared to be "hooey" and "rude" to boot. (Though not to worry, said Bill -- none of this meant that "the Internet isn't wonderful, [or] that it won't change the world.") Not only was there no payday in my future, Kuresman assured me, there was no beta test of any e-mail tracking program going on: "Microsoft takes security and privacy very seriously," she said. "There's no such program." Disney spokeswoman Claudia Peters was even more succinct: "Basically, it's a hoax," she said, adding, "There is no Walt Disney Jr." So much for the forwarder who'd added, "Folks, I called Disney myself. It's no lie. GET IT DONE! You all owe me."

And yet, hundreds if not thousands of people had felt compelled to go through their e-mail address books and fire the thing along to long lists of acquaintances -- blithely ignoring that they were being asked to test a program that claimed to trace each station in a train of forwards, meaning that each person who passed it along was, in essence, informing on himself. Now, you don't have to be a militia member or a big believer in black helicopters to think that technology enabling anyone -- from a corporation like Microsoft to the FBI to, say, your manager at work -- to track just where an e-mail message has gone might be a bad idea.

As Barry Steinhardt, president of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, points out, "The reality of surveillance of e-mail is a significant issue in many countries" -- from Russia, where the state security service has proposed that all Internet service providers be required to send it a copy of every piece of electronic mail, to the Netherlands, where the government wants a "trap door" for access to all e-mail. And these were people who clearly should have known better: Journalists, employees of telecommunications companies like MCI, money managers dealing in foreign exchange trading, even the director of something called the Sacred Science Institute, "an Internet organization [without] regular telephone hours," as its voice mail says, who single-handedly passed the message along to 107 of his friends and neighbors.

What were these people thinking? To try to find out, I sent off a couple dozen e-mails to folks in the chain. Unfortunately, most of them proved less willing to respond to a query from a journalist than they'd been to pass along the chance to shake Mickey's hand. But though my sample is admittedly small, I did hear from some forwarders -- none of whom actually believed they'd get anything free from Bill and/or Walt Jr., of course. Take Scott Robinson, a futures trader from Colorado, who got the West Coast version. He says he "did some quick calculations and realized just how much they would be paying out and it didn't make sense. I maybe would have believed it if it was JUST a copy of Windows '98, but the $1,000 was a bit much." Nevertheless, he forwarded the message to "a couple of family members and a couple of friends. All with a little smiley face :) and a message not to take it too seriously."

Robinson was sanguine about the privacy implications, too: "I don't now and NEVER have or will use e-mail for a form of communication that contains anything that I don't care if the world sees. Therefore, this threat of tracking ability doesn't bother me. Besides, if you are saying something or doing something you would be ashamed of if everyone knew about it, maybe you ought to ask yourself if you ought to be saying or doing it in the first place." That policy probably works well for him, but it leaves people who really are using the Internet to "change the world" -- as my friend Bill says -- out in the cold. I'm thinking here of the Chinese dissident who was recently arrested for sending tens of thousands of e-mail addresses to an ally outside that country.

More prosaically, it doesn't do much for your average corporate wage slave -- someone like Janet, an employee at a Canadian pharmaceuticals company (she asked not to be further identified), who also passed the e-mail along. Why? She "just got swept up, I guess. I just happened to receive it while I was at my desk and impulsively decided to forward it to a few friends." Once I'd asked, though, Janet looked into her company's corporate code of conduct and discovered she'd just violated it: The policy, like that at many companies, prohibits the redistribution of chain letters and required her to hang on to the message and notify the IT support staff. If there really had been e-mail tracking, she'd have been nailed (actually, she could be nailed anyway, but she would have made it even easier). "It's beginning to make me a bit nervous to have forwarded the letter on," she conceded in our e-mail exchange.

As for my co-worker, it turned out he'd gotten the message from his sister-in-law (who of course didn't believe it, but forwarded it along because she thought my colleague would be amused), who'd gotten it from someone in her office, who'd gotten it from someone else in her office, who'd gotten it from the head of the company's Paris branch, at which point its origins disappear into the ether.

By the time I called my friend to break the bad news, another colleague had already let him down, and not gently: "I received this chain e-mail two weeks ago and I believe it is a hoax," this second co-worker had e-mailed. "I checked the home pages of both Disney and Microsoft. After using their own search engines to look up 'free trips,' 'email tracking,' etc., I came up empty. I've seen a lot of these lately and you can usually spot them because they drop big names like Walt and Bill, but don't ever back them up with reference. They often use poor grammar and have misspellings. Also, how are you supposed to 'sign up?' ... just by forwarding this letter? IT WILL NOT WORK ... IF YOU EVER SEE ANYTHING LIKE THIS AGAIN THROW IT AWAY. AT LEAST DO NOT MAIL IT TO ME."

Pass it along.

By Amy Virshup

Amy Virshup is a senior editor at SmartMoney.

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