E-mail viruses: The message is the virus!

by Rich Pasco

Reposting without checking accuracy is like sharing gossip 
you heard without checking to see if it is true.
” — Brad Forbes

Would you deliberately forward a virus to all your friends? “Of course not,” you say? Well, many people do that when they unthinkingly follow the instructions in an important-sounding e-mail message that says “forward to everyone you know.”

One definition of a virus is “That which tricks its host into making more copies of itself.” This can be as true of an e-mail message as it can of a computer program or a biological virus. I call an e-mail message with this effect an e-mail virus. Fortunately, an e-mail virus is easy to spot:

  1. Says “forward to everyone you know” or “this is really true” or similar.
  2. Has an urgent-sounding warning, a heart-wrenching plea, an offer of something for nothing, or a heart-warming story.
  3. Has technical-sounding language with details glossed over.
  4. Gives no reference to contact the original author for more information (phone number, e-mail address, etc.)
  5. Seeks credibility by naming known institutions, publications, etc., but lacks details (contact persons, publication dates, web pages).
  6. Uses terms like “yesterday” or “this week” in an un-dated message.
  7. Promises you good luck if you forward it, or threatens bad luck if you don't.
If you receive such a message and cannot verify its truth, please do not aid in its propagation, even if you trust the person who sent it to you. Remember, he too may have been duped. If you forward it because “it just might be true” then you waste a lot of people's time and possibly embarrass yourself by demonstrating your gullibility.

The problem is, when we get urgent-sounding e-mail messages from people we trust, we tend to trust the e-mail without considering that they too may have been taken in by misinformation or be victims of malware.

Example of a Typical E-Mail Virus: The Pepsi-AIDS Warning


At the right is an example of an e-mail virus which was forwarded to me on Wednesday, May 8, 2019 by a well-meaning but misinformed friend. I added the stamp “Hoax!” before posting it here. It exhibits all seven of the warning flags enumerated above, and doesn't even ring true because the AIDS virus is quite fragile and cannot transmitted this way. The go-to hoax-debunking site Snopes declared this one false on July 15, 2011 and yet it has been going around, complete with the word “yesterday,” almost eight years since then!

Virus Warnings

I often receive warning messages which read like this:

Urgent! If you receive a message with a heading saying ________ do not open it, because it is a virus which will destroy your computer. Please forward this warning to everyone in your contact list!
This is dangerous in several ways. Not only does it waste your and your contacts' time by inducing you and them to forward a false warning, it also falsely suggests that one can detect a computer virus by the title of the message which carries it. It might give receipiends a false sense of security about other messages by leading them to think, “Well, the title wasn't one of those, so it must be safe to open.”

Regardless of the title, you should always practice “safe computing.” Remember, to open any executable file (whether received as an e-mail attachment, web link, or otherwise) means to surrender complete control of your computer system to its distant (and unknown) author. Even if you know and trust the person who apparently sent it to you, please consider that his e-mail account may be under the control of malicious software (malware).

Incredible Photographs

Here's what I do whenever I receive an incredible picture. I don't believe the caption attributed to it. Instead: I right-click on it and choose either “Copy Image Location.” (if it's on the web) or “Save Image As” (if it's in an e-mail). Then I go to Google Images and click on the camera icon to choose “Search by Image.” I either paste the URL into the search box or upload the image I just saved and, Voila! The whole history of the photo appears before my eyes.

Medical Advice

My best medical advice comes from consultation with my doctor, and reading articles in peer-reviewed medical journals. Yet many people get theirs from “forward-to-eveyone-you-know” viral posts forwarded by their friends, and then compound the problem by forwarding them again without fact checking. As one example, there is a persistent e-mail virus claiming magical health benefits of drinking water at certain times of the day.

Facebook “Copy-and-Paste” Instructions

The advent of social-networking giant Facebook has created a platform where viruses are rampant. Most have little do with the kind of computer virus that many people fear most (an executable program that damages your computer). However, messages which tell you to copy-and-paste them are themselves a kind of virus in the broader sense defined as “that which tricks its victims into reproducing itself.” I often say, “If a message tells you to forward itself, that is a red flag that it is probably false. And if it tells you how to forward it, that guarantees that it is false.” See more about copy-and-paste instructions.


Even if an item sounds plausible, and even if you agree with its spirit, and even if it says “please share” or “please forward,” or “please copy and paste” you still should not share or forward or copy-and-paste it without first doing some independent research to confirm that the assumptions it makes are still true (if they ever were). Failing to do that research, and forwarding items just because they seem compelling, is how misinformation spreads. There have always been rumors, gossip, urban legends and old-wives' tales, but the Internet now makes it possible to spread misinformation faster than ever, and it is imperative that we all do our homework before passing items along.

Relevant web sites

Articles about Fake News

Urban legend collections


Specific e-mail viruses

Parodies and Caricatures

Index to all of Rich Pasco's articles on e-mail and viruses

Rich Pasco's home page

Copyright © 2001-2017 Richard C. Pasco. All rights reserved.