E-Scams: Too Good To Be True
By Nick Gerlich

They show up in your e-mail...the promise of money, material goods, or simply good luck---if you only forward that e-mail to 10 other people. Sound familiar? The chain letter has graduated, and is now an e-scam.

We could have guessed it would happen. Chain letters always preyed upon people's emotions, such as greed, hope, and compassion. Now that 50-percent of US homes have a PC, chain letters have gone electronic. And good-intentioned people are passing them along, clogging up our e-mails like Christmas cards slow down the US Post Office.

This new breed of chain letter I call "e-scams," not that people lose money in the process, but that they waste time (theirs and other's). Readers fall for the promise of personal gain, and then share the prosperity message with everyone on their mailing list.

Common to most of these e-scams is some reference to a rather sophisticated tracking device, usually operated by Microsoft, that somehow keeps track of how many people you send the e-mail to. The truth is, while your ISP may be able to track how many e-mails you've sent and received, Microsoft cannot. Furthermore, it doesn't care.

Below is the text of an e-scam circulating that concerns the popular retail chain GAP:

Free Gap Clothes..DON'T DELETE!!

Pass it on and I will be more than glad to share with you Abercrombie & Fitch have recently merged to form the largest hottie outfitter company in the world! In an effort to remain at pace with this giant, the GAP has introduced a new email tracking system to determine who has the most loyal followers. This email is a beta test of the new clothing line and GAP has generously offered to compensate those who participate in the testing process. For each person you send this e-mail to, you will be given a pair of cargo pants. For every person they give it to, you will be given an additional Hawaiian print T-shirt, for every person they send it to, you will recieve a fishermans hat! GAP will tally all the emails produced under your name over a two week period and then email you with more instructions. This beta test is only for Microsoft Windows users because the email tracking device that contacts GAP is embedded into the code of Windows 95 and 98. If you wish to speed up the "clothes receiving process" then you can email the GAP's P.R. rep for a free list of email addresses to try, at...."gollygap@yahoo.com

This really works I started this a month ago. The GAP emailed me with further instructions like my size and address etc. A couple days later I received a box load of clothes!!! They are great!!!!

The volume of e-mail generated by this scam was so huge that GAP had to post a disclaimer to their web site to try to stanch the flow. To no avail, of course--people love the promise of free stuff, and if all it takes is a few mouseclicks...

Other e-scams making the rounds include the following:

  • The Miller Brewing Company, in celebration of the millennium, wants to give away a free six-pack of beer to the first 2,000,000 people to circulate the bogus e-mail. Hey, what if I use all of my e-mail aliases? I could get a few cases!
  • Honda will credit you $1 for each person your message gets sent to. You could save over $1000 on a new car! If Shermer sent this e-mail to every person on the SkepticMag Hotline list, he could darn near get a new car!
  • M&M is celebrating the millennium in a big way. M&M---get it? MM = 2000 in Roman numerals. Send the e-mail, and you'll get M&Ms for life. Just what I need...a mouthful of cavities to mark the new century.

There are variations of each of these making the rounds. Invariably, though, the central premise (free goods or money) is predicated upon the person circulating the e-mail to as many people as possible.

Are these scams of the popular genre known as urban legends? Probably not. Jan Harold Brunvand, the author of many books on urban legends, and the undisputed authority on the subject, would likely say no. His latest book, Too Good To Be True, discusses the e-mailing of legends and other such tales. Whereas the Neiman Marcus Cookie Recipe, told verbally and now by e-mail, is a good example of an urban legend, the new breed is not. (Of course, the story in the legend never occurred--another hallmark of urban legends.)

For example, the Neiman Marcus legend features the theme of retribution and poetic justice. Urban legends nearly always have some kind of a moral to them. In this case, the moral is that the big, bad company screwed some poor consumer, and now she's getting back.

The current e-scams, however, do not feature any such moral. They simply promise some material gain, which casts them into the lot of chain letter..the same kinds of letters that promised good luck (or threatened bad luck if nothing was done) for sending the message, or featured public domain recipes for everyone to try, or the humorous "Splat" e-mail snowball that screams "Gotcha!"

At best, these e-scams are humorous and mildly entertaining for those who can see through them. For those who send them, they build a temporary state of hope...until the six-pack or M&Ms or Hondas never arrive. The real victims, though, are the companies who are innocently entangled in the scam. They are made to look bad, and are forced to waste time and money putting out these fires.

If it sounds too good to be true, well, it ain't. And you can e-mail that to as many people as you like.