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It's Not Just for Dinner Anymore

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It's happened to all of us. You receive an e-mail that reads something like this: "Apparently, a new computer virus has been engineered by a user of America Online that is unparalleled in its destructive capability . . . What makes this virus so terrifying is the fact that no program needs to be exchanged for a new computer to be infected. It can be spread through the existing e-mail systems of the Internet . . . Luckily, there is one sure means of detecting what is now known as the Good Times virus. It always travels to new computers the same way - in a text e-mail message with the subject line reading simply 'Good Times'. . . The bottom line here is - if you receive a file with the subject line reading 'Good Times,' delete it immediately! Do not read it! Rest assured that whoever's name was on the 'From:' line was surely struck by the virus. Warn your friends and local system users of this newest threat to the Internet!"

So, like the good netizen that you are, you forward the note to everyone you know. And guess what, you've been duped, just like thousands (millions?) before you, and the thousands after. A computer virus, those in the know inform us, cannot be spread through e-mail alone. (Who knew?) And somewhere there's a prankster laughing it up, just as he or she has been doing since he or she first launched this e-mail in the last months of 1994.

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Nowadays, the Good Times hoax is classic Net lore, with dozens of Web sites dedicated to the phenomenon. And there are countless others. There's the "Craig Shergold" e-mail, initially, and legitimately, a dying wish by a cancer victim who wanted to get into the Guinness Book of World Records by receiving the most get-well cards. He did, and his cancer also went into full remission. But the e-mail, first launched in 1991, still trips around the Net today and the post cards still pour in to his hometown post office. Just this past month an e-mail circulated from the bogus address "GatesBeta@microsoft.com," supposedly from "Bill Gates & The Microsoft Development Team." Microsoft, the note claimed, had created an e-mail-tracing program that would track everyone to whom the e-mail was forwarded. "Forward it to everyone you know, and if it reaches 1,000 people, everyone on the list will receive $1,000 and a copy of Windows98 at my expense." It didn't matter that the note was riddled with grammatical errors; the chance at some easy money made thousands take the bait.

All harmless, right? Not necessarily. Consider the anguish that overcame users who thought they might have been infected by the Good Times virus. Consider the inconvenience and employee-power dollars shelled out by Microsoft (I know, it's hard to be sympathetic toward Microsoft, but the point still stands) once it was deluged by those in search of their payday. Such PR nightmares are a perpetual concern among Internet service providers, who are forced to spend time fending off spammers (junk mailers, both of the jokester and scheister variety) at the behest of their clients, who can be especially vocal about the more crass, blatant junk mail that pitches pyramid schemes and porn sites. "Your house gets overrun by cockroaches if you don't go spraying once in a while," says Steve Dougherty, director of Internet operations at Earthlink. "This is the same kind of situation for us. We do the regular spraying so the pipes don't get clogged up with these cockroaches." These are not the words of an amused man.

Dr. Jessica Ann Linney is not amused either. The psychology professor and department chair at the University of South Carolina practically had to fight for her job after her name and affiliation were unknowingly attached to an e-mail claiming to be a dying wish of a 7-year-old girl "suffering from an acute and very rare case of cerebral carcinoma." The e-mail went on to say that in honor of Jessica Mydek, "the American Cancer Society and several other corporate sponsors have agreed to donate 3 cents toward continuing cancer research for every new person that gets forwarded this message." Because the return address was nonexistent, and because Linney's name was attached to the note, the professor began getting contacted via e-mail, fax and telephone by those concerned that their e-mail was not being delivered, as well as by those angered by the hoax and wishing to vent to the presumed instigator. Soon, Linney had to change her e-mail address, phone and fax numbers and eventually had to defend herself to the president of the university, who had received his share of irate communiques, many of which called for the professor's termination.

It started more than a year ago. To this day, the Department of Psychology is still inundated with such messages. "I get faxes hourly, every morning they're stacked up here," says one department assistant. "I know it's just some idiot jerk who started the whole thing. If you take the child's name and slow it down, you get an entirely different meaning."

Well, let's see. Jessica Mydek. Jes-sic-a-my-dek. Oh yeah. She's right.

Duped again.

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