Scary or Urgent E-mail — Don’t Be Fooled

E-mail  is the best communication tool for seniors, kids, and grandchildren and is so easy and convenient!  This interconnectedness is even more important at times of family illness and when family members live far away from one another.  All family members, but especially seniors, need to master some important skills and understand some key concepts, many or which have nothing to do with the technical side of e-mail.

Recently my mother forwarded me an e-mail. Now she is a savvy computer user and is careful about deleting anything that she believes is questionable. The message urgently advised people to register their cell phones with the DO NOT CALL REGISTRY (see my post from November 11th). Written in an urgent voice its aim was to make someone react without checking the validity of the content.  My mother was clever.  When she received the e-mail she went to the DO NOT CALL REGISTRY web site and compared the number in the e-mail with the number at the official Federal Communications Commission (FCC) website. Go mom!

This is a happy ending, but more often the story ends unhappily because these e-mails, often referred to as  urban legends, cause  considerable angst and worry. And responses to these e-mails, even when they go to appropriate sites for appropriate reasons, clutter the Internet with unnecessary e-mail. In my mom’s case, there was more to the story.

While the FCC phone numbers in this e-mail were correct, the story about cell phone numbers being released was not true. Check out this link on, in a post called “Celling your Soul” which tells about this particular urban legend.

Just about every time I chat with people, but especially with seniors, about my job in educational technology, I hear a story about a scary or frightening e-mail. It is always the same. A message arrives in an e-mail box urging a person to respond.  Half the time it is from a friend and the other time it’s impossible to tell where it is from. Sometimes it is frightening or arrives more than once but from different sources. Sometimes the message asks for personal information.

If it seems too sad, to scary, too impossible to attain, or offers you all  kinds of rewards, assume it is  fraudulent. Delete it.  Even if it makes sense, think about the way a person usually gets important information. It’s almost never by mass e-mail. Delete the e-mail and don’t give it another thought.

We need to teach our ourselves, our parents and grandparents, and our children to be savvy consumers and adroit users of e-mail.  Below I’ve written a few tips to keep in mind when you receive e-mail  that doesn’t feel quite right.

  1. No reputable organization will request money solely by e-mail. If an organization’s e-mail does request  help and/or assistance, including financial, it will always provide a website to consult. Still not satisfied? Pick up the telephone and call the organization.
  2. No one will every ask for a credit card information or provide information about a credit card problem via e-mail (even if it looks like it comes from the bank).
  3. Stories that are heartbreaking, frightening, threatening or just plan scary are urban legends or hoaxes– for sure. E-mail is not the venue where problems like these are solved.
  4. If you don’t reply and don’t open an e-mail, it cannot hurt you. The safest thing to do is to ignore and delete any e-mail that you do not expect or understand.
  5. If you do open an unpleasant e-mail message, do not click on any attachment.  Close and delete everything immediately.  Just in case a virus is attached to the message, be sure to keep your computer virus definitions up to date (or ask someone to help you do it).

Check out these web sites about urban legends and e-mail hoaxes.

  • This site, started by librarians, keeps track of almost all of the urban legends and e-mail hoaxes, and it has an archive so when stories recirculate, you can look them up.
  • Twenty-five hottest urban legends This location of Snopes keeps track of the urban legends and hoaxes that circulate the most.
  • This location keeps track of the newest urban legends catalogued by Snopes.
  • David Emery at also has a great site that keeps track of urban legends, in and out of the computer world. Also, read his urban legends blog.

One thought on “Scary or Urgent E-mail — Don’t Be Fooled

  1. Pingback: Census Information and Aging Parents « As Our Parents Age

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