A hoax is a message that claims to warn recipients of a (non-existent) computer virus threat.

Hoax: Definition

This is often a chain message telling recipients to forward the mail to all their contacts. The aim is simply to cause alarm and confusion among users.


How to identify them

Most hoaxes are quite sensationalist: aiming to shock the recipient and are often easily spotted by the fact that they often make impossible claims about the effects of the virus, such as causing fires or making computers explode; or other serious consequences, such as deleting everything the user has on the computer.

They sometimes include fake warnings from IT companies or fake news stories, supposedly published by genuine news organizations. These aim to give credibility to the hoax.

As with scareware, these warnings tend to use alarmist language, emphasizing the urgent nature of the threat and calling on users to inform others as soon as possible.

Hoaxes are usually inoffensive in themselves, and the damage caused is the time wasted by those who don't realize that it is a hoax, and forward the message to contacts.

Sometimes, however, there have been hoaxes that aim to manipulate users by making them believe that essential system files are really viruses, and telling them to delete them, causing permanent damage to the system. Moreover, there can be additional damage caused by the loss of productivity, loss of credibility, saturating of local networks, etc.

Some analysts believe that hoaxes and other chain messages are really a computer worm which propagates using social engineering, exploiting ignorance and panic, and users' neglect to check the veracity of information before passing it on.

It is also important to distinguish hoaxes from pranks; the latter being inoffensive programs that take unwanted or annoying actions on computers, such as randomly moving the mouse pointer, or turning the screen upside down, etc.


What should you do with hoaxes?

If you receive a hoax, it is advisable to simply ignore it and not forward it to anyone. The main characteristics that help to identify these fake virus alerts are:

  • To make the messages look real, they normally include the header of a reputable news or media agency. Similarly, the messages rarely include a date, so that they will always appear recent, even if they have been in circulation for a long time.
  • They are almost always sent via email, in order to spread these rumors across the Web.
  • The messages are normally alarmist and encourage users to take immediate action to resolve the infection. You should never follow these instructions, as they can often be damaging to your computer.
  • As a general rule, they claim that the supposed virus goes undetected by antivirus programs, in order to explain why users' security software has not detected the infection.