Diagnosis hoax - a case study in detecting an email chain letter

Advice on handling email chain letters and hoaxes

I recently received an email from a very reliable contact that said simply “Some good tips!” with a file attached called PoliceTips.doc. The document was a list of eight “tips” for keeping yourself safe in public places, and the strong suggestion is that they were issued by the police.

Before I finished reading the document, I had diagnosed it as a hoax and a chain letter. Here’s how I did it.

First impressions

I started reading and the first line was:


Immediately I thought: “Now that’s a funny way to start, isn’t it? The author seems to think that I’ll want to delete the document - even before I’ve read it. That doesn’t fill me with confidence.

“Also using CAPITALS is practically the same as shouting, which suggests a certain lack of sophistication in the author.”

On to the next line:

Unfortunately this is NOT funny but things we should always. Keep in mind!

Me: “I’m no English teacher, but even I can see that this is really bad language. Typos happen, but it is highly unlikely that the police would allow a glaring blooper like this to be released in an official document.”

Next line:

TIPS FROM POLICE …. This is a good reminder for all of us. You can never read this too many times!!

Me: “But which police? There are eight police forces in Australia alone and there must be hundreds more worldwide. But this document gives no hint as to which particular police force issued it. And where is the URL so that I can locate the definitive source online? Hmm, perhaps it wasn’t issued by the police at all?

“Also it seems highly unlikely that any police force would issue such advice by email.

“And I’ll be the judge of how often I want to read something, thanks all the same!”


Then I got to the tips themselves:

1. Tip from police: The elbow is the strongest point on your body. If you are close enough to use it, do!

Me: “What a sensational claim! It’s been awhile since I’ve studied anatomy and biomechanics, but I don’t recall anyone knowledgeable in either field ever telling me this. Let’s face it, this isn’t just imprecise use of language, it’s intentionally sensational. It all depends on what you mean by ’strongest’: I bet I could punt a football further with my foot than I could with my elbow - doesn’t that mean my foot is stronger?

“Also, what about when you hit your ‘funny bone’? That happens because the ulnar nerve comes very close to the surface as it wraps around the side of the elbow - a pretty vulnerable thing to have in ‘the strongest point’ of your body.

“OK, I see the point that the elbow is an effective weapon at close-quarters, but it hardly qualifies as the strongest part of the body.”

Sensational language puts me on my guard here.

There followed several more tips that seemed to be pretty reasonable advice, even if delivered with a lot of SHOUTING and sensational language, then I got to:

6. ALWAYS take the elevator lift instead of the stairs.(Stairwells are horrible places to be alone and the perfect crime spot).

Me: “What’s going on with this editing? Someone has put a strike line though the word ‘elevator’ and substituted ‘lift’. True, this is the more common term in Australia but this edit suggests that this document is not in original condition - what other edits have been made that aren’t so obvious?”

Suspicions mount.

7. If the predator has a gun and you are not under his control, ALWAYS RUN! The predator will only hit you (a running target) 4 in 100 times; And even then, it most likely WILL NOT be a vital organ, RUN!

Me: “This sounds quite plausible - at first: I’ve fired a gun and it’s incredibly hard to hit the target. But then it’s also possible to improve with practice.

“And we have some numbers here to make it look authoritative - so who produced those numbers? And how on earth would anyone go about proving such a claim anyway?

“OK, let’s assume that it is correct for the moment. Let’s also assume that the attacker will be able to get off five shots before I duck around the nearest corner. With a 4 in 100 chance on each shot, this means that across all five shots my assailant has a 1 in 5 chance of hitting me - I’m not sure I still like those odds…

“Oh, and being hit in a non-vital part of the body is a good option is it? So now I’m incapacitated and in pain, and still under the control of my attacker.

“It doesn’t seem likely that the police would give blanket advice to ‘ALWAYS RUN!’ without taking the entire situation into account.

“This really isn’t looking good.”

8. As women, we are always trying to be sympathetic: STOP IT! It may get you raped, or killed. Ted Bundy, the serial killer, was a good-looking, well educated man, who ALWAYS played on the sympathies of unsuspecting women. He walked with a cane, or a limp, and often asked “for help” into his vehicle or with his vehicle, which is when he abducted his next victim.

Me: “This is generalising from a sample of one. Ted Bundy was an extremely nasty man but he was just one man. His name is invoked here to trigger an emotional response: ‘Do you want to be Ted Bundy’s next victim?’ Hell no!

“But Bundy is no longer a danger to society (and more to the point, he never was a danger to society in this country), so what’s the point in bringing up his name? It would be more useful to tell me how to avoid becoming a victim if I am helpful to a stranger.

“Also, I don’t think the police would circulate how-to-do-it advice like this for the information of any would-be serial killers out there.”


After the tips, the style changed a bit with a longer anecdote that started:

Someone just told me that her friend heard …

Me: “OK - who the hell are you? I’ve already established that authorship of this thing is unknown, so why should I give any credence to what you have to say - especially about something you’ve heard from a friend of a friend?”

I won’t bore you by repeating the whole thing, but it was essentially the tale of a serial killer using the sound of a baby crying to entice women out of their homes at night. This story has cock-and-bull written all over it. In any case, there’s any easy way to tell if there’s really a baby crying on your doorstep without any risk of abduction or murder - have a look out of the window.

The clincher

The clincher was how the thing ended:

Please forward this to all the women you know. It may save a life. A candle is not dimmed by lighting another candle. I was going to send this to the ladies only, but guys, if you love your mothers, wives, sisters, daughters, etc., you may want to pass it onto them, as well.

Me: “This is pure chain-letter guff. Emotional appeal upon emotional appeal - and of course the pleading to pass it on.”

A little research

One read-through was enough to convince me that this was a hoax and a chain-letter, but maybe you aren’t so easily swayed by my opinion. Heck, I’m not that easily swayed by my opinion - I want to check my hypothesis. So I put it to the test.

Crying baby? Don’t make me laugh!

I started with the least plausible first - the crying baby serial killer. So I used that as a search term in Google: “crying baby serial killer” and the first six results were:

These pages are all on credible sites and they all indicate that this is a hoax. One of them is even about an Australian variation on the story (aren’t we lucky?).

That was easy, now how about the rest of it?

Digging in the elbow

I took a fairly distinctive phrase from the “tips” and to see what would fall out of the web. I chose “elbow is the strongest point on your body” and put it into Google, and the first result was:

According to this report, the tips originated in a message that included this glowing “endorsement”:

Last night I attended a personal safety workshop, and it jolted me. It was given by an amazing man, Pat Malone, who has been a body guard for famous figures like Farrah Fawcett and Sylvester Stallone. He works for the FBI, and teaches police officers and Navy SEALS hand-to-hand combat. This man has seen it all, and knows a lot.

So it is possible that these “tips” originated as spam advertising Pat Malone’s seminars and videos, started either by someone working for Malone or someone who attended a Malone seminar and thought it would be useful to pass the information on.

Sadly that search also produced thousands of links to copies of these “tips”, repeated all over the web. Sometimes I despair.

Note quite spam, but…

Chain-mail is not as big a problem as spam but it does reduce the “signal-to-noise” ratio of email, so it is worth giving it some attention. Don’t automatically forward every well-meaning message that lands in your inbox. Develop a healthy bullshit detector and keep it active whenever you’re on the Internet.

In no particular order, here are some things that my bullshit detector looks out for:

  • Authorities don’t use word-of-mouth email - no credible authority in the world releases information by email and asks the recipient to pass it on.
  • No original source - is there a URL or reference to a published source? If there’s nothing then I can’t check it.
  • Sensational and emotional language - genuine authorities rarely use emotionally charged language.
  • SHOUTING and excessive emphasis or punctuation!!!! - need I say more?
  • Grammar and spelling errors - “official” documents are generally well written.
  • Evidence of editing - change in writing style or font indicates that someone may have altered the text.
  • Unreferenced or untestable statistics - right up there with lies and damn lies.
  • Anecdotes - something you “just heard from a friend” doesn’t carry any weight with me.
  • Pleas (or threats) to not delete and/or to pass it on - classic signs of a chain-letter.

On the receiving end

If you are on the receiving end of a hoax or chain-letter the most important thing is to be polite to the sender - they probably sent the message out of genuine concern. Find evidence that the message is a hoax. I usually do a web search using some key words from the message plus the word “hoax”. The links listed at the end of this article are also reliable sources of information. When you have some information to back up your suspicions, give it the sender and ask them not to send you this sort of thing in future. You might also share some of the advice from this article to that the sender will be better prepared next time.


First published: PC Update December 2004

One Response to “Diagnosis hoax - a case study in detecting an email chain letter”

  1. Gigi Says:

    Hey there.

    I’m writing this to say that I just recieved that same chain letter today from my grandmother, and I bet she did send it out of genuine concern, like you said. I’m so glad you have written about that email - lately I’ve also been doing Google searches about forwarded messages/chain letters to make sure that what I’ve read is really true, and SO FAR, 100% of the time, every chain letter I’ve recieved for months is just spam. But I don’t think too many people know that. Your post here has been really helpful, and convincing (but especially convincing to me since I was already clued into practically every point of yours mentioned about this hoax) and I’m hoping to send out that message to my friends and family, but not in a chain-lettery-spammish way. :P

    I think that this blog of yours is very interesting, and I’m going to read more of it… :) Doesn’t seem like too many people comment, but it’s still good to keep on writing… hehe. Again, I’m glad I stumbled upon this entry of yours (this Web site was actually listed at the top of the Google page when I typed in “elbow strongest point of body,” above some other sites listed about this chain letter). Okay, just letting you know.

    Random passerby Gigi