But there also are messages designed to rob you, deceive you, waste your time, and clog the Web. They're called Internet hoaxes. CBS MarketWatch Correspondent Susan McGinnis reports for The Saturday Early Show.
They look like any other email – innocent, maybe even helpful, and, typically, they come from a friend.
"It's called the viral effect," explains AOL online adviser Regina Lewis. "They can spread very quickly. People inadvertently forward them to friends and family. Sometimes, very well intentioned. But they're chain letters, and, at the basic level, that's how rumors spread online."
Among the many types of Internet hoaxes is the giveaway hoax, which promises great amounts of cash or merchandise, if you forward the email to friends. On such email, seemingly from the Gap, says that, for each person to whom you forward the email, you get a free pair of cargo pants.
Ad the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, the Department of Energy's Computer Incident Advisory Capability (CIAC) Team investigates Internet hoaxes. William Orvis is a computer security specialist and a CIAC team member. He says some hoaxes can have serious consequences.
"Several years ago," he recalls, "we had a message going around the Internet that offered kiddie porn for sale, and it gave a telephone number in New York City. The poor guy that owned that telephone number had absolutely nothing to do with it. But, all of a sudden, he's getting hate messages and warnings to get out of town."
For some, the motive is money; for others, mischief.
Orvis explains, "The people that do these hoaxes, they're trying to find out where this thing can go, to see if they can get something that will go out and live on its own. The ones that are doing scams are trying to bilk you out of money."
So how do you know an Internet hoax when you see one?
"They are written much like a newspaper article," says Orvis. "They start out with some kind of a hook, something to catch your attention and get you to look at it and read the whole message. It's either: a little girl is dying, or a horrible virus is going to destroy your system."
Other telltale characteristics:
- A great sense of urgency and importance
- It insists you forward it to others.
- It warns of dire consequences if you don't forward it.
- It often contains some form of corroboration, such as: "My neighbor works for this company, and I know it's true."
Says Orvis, "If you're concerned about a virus, you can always go to one of the anti-virus Web sites and find out if it's real. If it's a hoax message, or want to know if it's a hoax, you can come to the hoaxbusters Web site and look it up there. There's also several other hoax sites around that have very good info. That you can look up."
For a full listing of all the hoaxes out there, including chain letters and urban myths, go to http://www.hoaxbusters.ciac.org.