Frequently Asked Questions
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- Who is behind this site?
BreakTheChain.org is the work of John R. Ratliff, an editor and researcher with a background in psychology and computers, as well as extensive experience using the Internet for research and communication. Learn more about me...
- Is BreakTheChain.org a non-profit organization?
No. BreakTheChain.org is non-profit only in the sense that every dollar earned through advertising and product sales is used to cover the continuing costs of running the site. I claim the income on my tax returns. BreakTheChain.org is a ".org" site, simply because the ".com" version of the domain name was taken (and continues to be registered to an individual well-known for parking domain names to sell for the right price).
- How and when did BreakTheChain.org get started?
BreakTheChain.org was founded (under a different name) in April, 1999. It was borne of the same frustration that brings people here: getting the same chain letters and hoaxes from different friends and family and trying to explain to each of them individually what was wrong with them. Originally, it was a simple link list to articles on prevalent chains of the day. Over the years, with the support of millions of readers, the site has grown into a globally recognized resource on hoax e-mails.
- Has BreakTheChain.org been recognized by the media?
Yes. BreakTheChain.org has been featured on national and regional television in the U.S. and Britain. I've been a guest on radio shows in the U.S., England, Sweden, South Africa and others. I've also been sited as an "expert" on junk e-mail in newspapers and Web sites worldwide.
Click here for list of some media mentions.
- What is a Chain-Breaker?
A Chain-Breaker is anyone who considers that not everything written in e-mail is golden and that there is always a better source of information than an e-mail chain letter. Some breakers simply stop the chain when they get it. Others send the facts about a chain back to the sender to educate them. Some send the facts "back up the chain" to everyone that got the chain before they did. In short, a chain-breaker is anyone who has the nerve to say "I don't want the junk!"
- Why do you tell readers to "break the chain" even when a chain is true?
I feel that what sets BreakTheChain.org apart from other 'hoax-busting' sites is that I look beyond the truth or falsehood of the message, and instead focus on whether an e-mail chain letter is the best/only tool for spreading it (it almost never is). I want readers to consider the value of the letter itself: Does it serve a purpose that would not be better served by other means? Does it ignore e-mail's limitations as an information tool?
- What if I disagree with your assessment of a chain?
Let me know. I don't expect my opinion to be representative of everyone else's, nor would I want it to be. I also recognize that my opinions are not infallable, and I welcome input from others. I have been known to change or soften my stance on certain topics - even re-write entire articles - based on reader feedback.
- Does BreakTheChain.org have any political affiliations or agenda?
I am not (and, therefore, BreakTheChain.org is not) affiliated with any political party, organization or company for the purpose of advocacy, campaigning or propaganda. The opinions expressed on this site are mine alone. If you feel an opinion expressed on this site is unfairly one-sided, please let me know.
- Why is there so much advertising on BreakTheChain.org?
Advertising is a necessary evil to help pay for hosting and other site services. I understand that certain types of web advertising, particularly pop-up and pop-under ads, can be as annoying as e-mail chain letters, so I try to keep them to a minimum. If you find any ad odd, annoying, inapropriate or offensive, please contact me.
- I sent you an e-mail, why haven't you responded?
I cannot reply to every e-mail I receive, but I do read every one. I take every comment, suggestion and criticism seriously, but simply do not have the time to respond individually.
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- What is a chain letter?
An e-mail chain letter is any message that, either through overt instruction or through compelling content, encourages the reader to pass it on.
- What's so bad about chain letters?
The most obvious answer is that many of them are complete hoaxes. But even when they contain accurate information, they can do damage because e-mail is not a reliable medium to transmit information to large groups. All chain letters pose a serious risk to your privacy and that of your friends, as your contact information could end up being circulated around the globe uncontrollably. For more reasons most chain letters should be broken, read "C'mon, What Can It Hurt?" in the Chain-Breaker's Library.
- Why is e-mail a terrible tool for spreading information?
E-mail lacks three important ingredients that make the mainstream media relatively trustworthy: Reliability (the message can be trusted to be unchanged from its original), validity (the source is identified and qualified to provide the information) and accountability (the author or publisher of the information takes responsibility for it and will answer to any criticism).
- Is there ever a chain letter that BreakTheChain.org feels is OK to forward?
Probably not. Every chain letter, at a minimum, poses a privacy and security risk to everyone who sends or receives them. For more explanation, read "C'mon, What Can It Hurt" in the Chain-Breaker's Library.
- How do I tell my friends and family not to send me chain letters without hurting their feelings?
Most people who forward chain letters believe they are doing something good. They think they are staying in touch and giving you potentially useful information. This often makes the gentle approach incredibly ineffective, as their altruistic spirit may overpower your words.
Be direct. Tell them that you appreciate them thinking of you, but would prefer they only send you personally-authored letters that express their own thoughts and feeling in their own words. For more insight, read "Chain Letter Psychology 101: The Mind of a Chronic Forwarder" in the Chain-Breaker's Library.
- Do companies really use e-mail chain letter schemes to get customers?
E-mail advertising and outreach is quite prolific in the corporate world. But, companies want you to visit their web sites, where they can make money through selling products and advertising. They typically use e-mail solely to drive traffic to their sites. If you get an e-mail that tells you a company wants to give you free products or cash, but doesn't point you to a web site or promises you can get it simply by forwarding the message, you can safely dismiss it as a hoax.
- What makes a person start a chain letter?
Chain letters are a very interesting social phenomenon. Their origins vary depending on the type of letter, but here's a quick list: Most chains are started with real and sincere intentions by someone who found or heard some interesting information and felt compelled to share it. Some chains start as private correspondence, but are shared with people outside the author's circle of friends because of the letter's contents. Some are flat-out hoaxes to make fun of those gullible enough to fall for them. Spammers and scammers may start or propagate chain letters as a sneaky way to gather e-mail addresses to send their junk to. Finally, many chain letters are borne of urban legends - stories of events or situations so amazing or amusing that we want (or fear) them to be true.
- Are chain letters threatening that something bad will happen to you if you don't forward them illegal?
I know of no law in any jurisdiction that prohibits the sending of "forward this or else" e-mails. While some harassment arrests and convictions have been based in part on threatening e-mails from the harrasser, "forward or else" chain letters may not qualify under law as harassment - their threats are neither specific nor believable. Keep in mind, however, that I'm no legal expert. If you feel threatened or harassed by an e-mail you've received, consult a lawyer or law enforcement agency to find out what options are available to you.
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Spam & Scams
- What is Spam?
Spam refers to any commercial mass e-mail with the apparent purpose of advertising a product or service, soliciting business or proposing participation in a multi-level marketing program - often mailed anonymously to thousands of recipients at a time.
- What is Multi-Level Marketing and is it legal?
Multi-Level Marketing (MLM), is more commonly known as a pyramid scheme. One person gets five to join, and they each get five, and so on. The few people at the top of the pyramid benefit from the work of the many people at the bottom. Making money through MLM is never as easy as the letters let on. To be successful, you have to buy mailing lists, postage, stationery, etc., and you have to devote several hours each day to sending and receiving mail. No matter what the letters about them may claim, pyramid schemes are illegal if they ask you to send money for nothing of equivalent value in return.
- Are commercial e-mails not considered spam if they provide a means for you to be removed from their mailing list?
In 1998, Senator John McCain introduced Senate Bill 1618, which required e-mail marketers to identify themselves and provide valid contact information in their mailings. S. 1618 passed the senate, but died in the House of Representatives. It never became law. Spammers who point out that they are following the letter of the law are often up to something sneaky. Don't be fooled.
- I replied to an e-mail ad to be removed, why am I still getting spam?
Responding to unsolicited commercial e-mail to be removed may have the exact opposite effect. When you reply to a message, you are, in effect, confirming your e-mail address. Confirmed addresses are worth more to spammers who buy lists from, and sell them to, other spammers. So, you've just increased the likelihood of more junk in the future.
- How did spammers get my e-mail address?
Spam is the telemarketing of the electronic age. Like it or not, your personal information is out there for anyone willing to spend a little money and/or expend a little effort to get it.
Many spammers use a program that scans websites, chat rooms and message boards for e-mail addresses. If your address is listed on a website, or posted on a message board, spammers may pick it up.
- How can I stop spam from coming?
Believe it or not, sending chain letters has been shown to increase a person's exposure to spam and scams. The more times you put your e-mail address out there, the higher the chance a spammer will find it. Once you start getting spam, there are various different types of spam filtering programs out there. You only receive messages from those on a "whitelist" (i.e., only users who you place on a list or who respond to a confirmation message) - all others are blocked.
- What's the deal with letters from disenfrachised Nigerians offering me a cut of several million dollars?
It's a scam, and one that bilks unsuspecting people out of billions of dollars each year. If you get one of these messages, don't get worked up about it. They can't do anything to you if you don't respond. Just delete them and get on with your life. For more information, read this article.
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Petitions and Boycotts
- Are e-mail petitions effective?
E-mail petitions have more wrong with them than right. Some who forward them argue that they serve a purpose in raising awareness of a problem, if nothing else. Politically and legislatively, however, they have almost no influence at all. Furthermore, "signatures" on e-petitions are easy to fake and often lack the completeness and verification required by most petition rules. For guidelines to help you determine whether a petition should be signed or deleted, read "Armchair Activism" in the Chain-Breaker's Library.
- What is "Armchair Activism?"
Armchair Activism refers to the enthusiastic and often exclusive use of e-mail to rally others around a cause because of the medium's speed and reach. Most people who forward e-petitions and other calls for help mostly do so because it is easy. If their participation required more effort - say, copying and distributing paper fliers, going door-to-door to gather signatures, attending rallies, etc. - they most likely would ignore the cause. E-mail petitions are not nearly as effective as grassroots campaigns and letters to congressmen. But they are a lot easier and can be done from the comfort of our homes and, yes, our armchairs. Thus we're more likely to participate, even when we're not particularly passionate (or convinced) about the cause. The less effort involved, the more we are willing to take on faith.
- Aren't e-mail petitions OK if they help spread the word about a cause?
Aside from the inherent security and privacy risks posed by chain letters, people have the right and the responsibility to examine both sides of an issue before making a decision. However, information culled from e-mail chain letters is usually neither valid or reliable. Never form an opinion or decide to act based on the information in a single, anonymously authored and haphazardly forwarded e-mail chain letter.
- Are Web sites that host online petitions for real?
There are many Web sites that provide tools (free and for cost) for individuals to post petitions and collect signatures. One of the most prevalent is PetitionOnline.com. Hosted petitions are only slightly more valid than their e-mail cousins, though. Remember that anybody can use these services and the hosts typically disclaim responsibility for the petitions' content or what will be done with signatures gathered.
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- What are viruses?
Viruses are computer programs that, when executed, work without your knowledge to destroy data on or execute unwanted commands on your computer. Like their namesakes, computer viruses attach themselves to files on your computer, affect your PC's performance and replicate themselves. At their least harmful, viruses can cause annoying glitches and some data loss. At their worst, they seek out critical system files and modify or corrupt them affecting the system's performance and often disabling it, or they can search your computer for certain information (logins, passwords, account numbers, e-mail addresses) and send them to a remote user.
- What are worms?
Worms are a specific type of computer virus. Like viruses, they attach themselves to files on your computer and alter or erase data, often with devastating results. Worms typically scan your data to extract valuable information (logins, passwords, account numbers, e-mail addresses) and then replicate themselves using your e-mail program and address book or their own built-in mailing program. Worms typically replicate more rapidly than viruses and are especially dangerous because of the extra work they cause for e-mail servers.
- Can opening e-mail messages with certain subject lines really infect my computer with a virus or worm?
With very few exceptions, you cannot get a virus by simply opening and reading an e-mail message. A virus or worm must be executed, or "run," to infect a computer. Simply downloading or receiving the file in an e-mail usually will have no immediate effect. The exception is HTML-formatted e-mail, which can contain scripts that execute automatically upon opening. Nonetheless, relying on e-mailed warnings that tell you to watch out for messages with certain subject lines is foolhardy. Viruses change as they circulate, often using a variety of subject lines or stealing their subjects from files on an infected computer.
- Is e-mail the only way I can get a virus?
No, e-mail is just one of several virus and worm delivery methods, and probably the most popular. Other routes of infection include direct downloads from websites, newsgroups, instant messages, ftp servers or elsewhere. This is just one reason why relying on virus warning e-mails provides no real protection.
- How can I protect my computer from viruses?
The only reliable and effective protection against computer viruses is anti-virus software. The leading packages (in the U.S.) are manufactured by McAfee and Symantec. Prices for these packages and updates vary by manufacturer. Once you install the software, you must keep it updated. For ways you can effectively prevent unwanted access to your data and links to different products, read "Protecting Your PC" in the "Chain-Breaker's Library".
- Are PCs more succeptible to virus attacks than Macs?
Generally, yes. PCs typically use Microsoft Windows as an operating system. Since Windows is so prevalent, hackers and other ne'er-do-wells seem to like to try to find built-in vulnerabilities. But, keep in mind that Macs are not totally immune from viruses and anti-virus software is still a must.
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