Monday, October 17, 2005

Historical spam

Today a friend of mine sent me a chain letter, almost exactly like the one described in this Wired Magazine article:
The email started with a list of recipients that was longer, and arguably more impressive, than the holy lineage at the start of the New Testament: dozens of people from Harvard and HarperCollins and The Wall Street Journal. This was a highbrow crowd. Then it got down to business. I was invited by a lawyer named Pearlas Sanborn to participate in a Microsoft/AOL/Intel email beta test designed to help Internet Explorer maintain its dominance in the marketplace. But first they needed more testers. "When you forward this email to friends, Microsoft can and will track it (if you are a Microsoft Windows user) for a two-week time period. For every person that you forward this email to, Microsoft will pay you $245, for every person that you sent it to that forwards it on, Microsoft will pay you $243, and for every third person that receives it, you will be paid $241."
As a Macintosh user, I was ineligible for this windfall. Still, I couldn't help but be a little curious - and perplexed. Why would AOL help its archrival, and what does Intel have to do with this? The remainder of the message didn't clarify matters. It simply went on to recount tales of fortunes earned ($4,324.44, $24,800), and then reiterated the offer, except that now Microsoft was running the beta test to facilitate an AOL/Intel merger and had decreased the reward to $203.15 for every forward. Why AOL and Intel would join forces with Microsoft was not explained.
While my version of the message did not have every detail mentioned above, it was strikingly similar and all the dollar amounts corresponded exactly, which is amusing since the article was published in July 2004. The author painstakingly proves that the message is a total hoax and discovers that its origins date from a joke among college friends in November 1997:
I found the same text preserved by an amateur Internet archivist named Martin Miller, a University of Houston student who'd saved every copy of the hoax he received over a seven-year period and posted the collection on his Web site (where he was also selling calendars for Lent). He informed me this version was sent to him in late 1997 and that he believes it's the first. When it got to him, there were just 10 names on the recipient list. The first was Bryan Mack at Iowa State.
Bryan Mack was no longer a student by the time I came calling. He'd graduated in 2001 and had taken a job programming databases at the Colorado School of Mines. He's a regular guy. He answers his own phone. "I wasn't trying to trick people," he told me. "It was just a joke between a couple friends." Then he described how the joke got a little out of hand.
It all started on November 18, 1997, when the guy sitting beside him in the computer lab received a get-rich-quick email, one of the first examples of spam that either of them had seen. "I can come up with something better than that," Mack boasted. Three minutes later, Bill Gates' email-tracing program was born. Mack thought it was funny enough to send to a friend at Loras College in Dubuque, with "bill gates here" in the subject line. It made the guy laugh, so he passed it on.
Within days, the message was being read by strangers. A few wrote Mack, asking about their money. Whatever, he thought. Then he went home for Thanksgiving break. "When I got back to school, my account was locked up. There was like a gigabyte of mail, thousands upon thousands of messages." He set up a filter to block the onslaught. But two weeks later, someone forwarded him a new version. His name was no longer in the header. It came from and offered $1,000 and a complimentary copy of Windows 98. Then he got another, signed by Walt Disney Jr., that promised $5,000 and a free vacation. "I started getting scared," he says. "I thought maybe I was going to get in trouble for fraud." But Bryan Mack had already been forgotten. He went on with his studies in computer science.
I generally hate this kind of thing, and I am certainly not sending it on to anyone else, but it was still amusing to be a part of what can only be termed a revered fixture of the internet - the original, and apparently most enduring chain-letter hoax of the digital age. It has been going on now for almost exactly eight years - I wonder if humanity has finally discovered a (useless) perpetual motion machine?

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