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Preparing for your digital life in the 21st Century
Preparing for your digital life in the 21st Century

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4.3 Hoaxes

[Break point. This would be a good point to take a break if you need to do something else before returning later.]

A hoax message aims to mislead, often relying on the naivety of its recipients. One of the most notorious hoaxes concerned the so-called ‘Good Times virus’. This hoax is described by Sophos (n.d.), a company that develops anti-virus software, as follows. (Remember this is a hoax, so please don’t spread the news about the Good Times virus as so many others did!)

Probably the most successful virus hoax of all time, Good Times has been scaring people since 1994. It’s still going strong, despite the fact that it is completely untrue; there is no such virus, and indeed it is impossible for a virus to do what is claimed for Good Times.

The hoax started off simply: it warned people not to read or download any email with the subject of “Good Times”, because the messages were viral and would erase their hard drives. Later, more detail was added, telling of the damage that would be done to the user’s computer system.

The end of the spoof warning contained an exhortation to “Forward this to all your friends. It may help them a lot.” […] In their thousands, people did, and still do.

The secret to the success of the hoax is that it successfully taps into computer users’ fears about computers, security and the Internet, and contains pseudo-technical babble that sounds convincing.

This description indicates how convincing the message in this case was. Hoax messages can spread rapidly via email and forums, often passed on unwittingly by work colleagues, family, friends and even reputable online retailers. Unfortunately, users who fall for hoaxes can cause problems both for themselves and for others. A hoax can generate spam (when, as with Good Times, it directs the recipient to pass on the message), cause files to be deleted unnecessarily and potentially harmfully (by directing the user to delete them), and generally cause panic.

Like Sophos, most anti-virus software vendors maintain information on hoaxes on their websites, so you can check such sites if you suspect a hoax. Alternatively you can use a search engine: by searching for significant terms contained within the hoax message, you may find reports on reputable sites such as the Sophos site.