Further Adventures in Email Tracking
August 12, 1998
IS THERE anybody who isn't using an "email tracker" these days?
If we're to believe what we read in the chain letters clogging our inboxes of late, everyone from Bill Gates to "Walt Disney Jr." (nevermind that the latter doesn't exist) is employing special software to reward obedient email forwarders with merchandise and big bucks. Bill Gates offers $1,000; Disney promises $5,000 - not bad dough just for clicking your mouse button. But why mess around with small change when you can make millions by following the instructions in the email below?
Fwd: You have to read this. It's so cool.
Need some extra $$$ for the summer? Sure we all do. This program has been going on for 15 summers, by mail, then e-mail. It is really very simple. Attached to this message is a tracking program. Every person you send this message to, you earn $10.00. If they send it to someone else, you earn another $5.00, so on and so on. So basically, the more people you send this to, the more $$$ you will earn. This is funded by National Banks everywhere, that believe that summers should be fun for children, the world's future and should learn how to manage $$$.
"I received this letter ten years ago. I had just gotten my e-mail account, and I hated these letters I kept getting, so I deleted this message. In a week, my mother came down with a serious case of skin cancer. I was pretty poor at the time, and had just gotten fired from my job. My mother needed money for her operation, or else she'd die from cancer. My husband and I didn't know what to do. His monthly income just paid our necessary bills, like electricity and water. That day, when I checked my e-mail again, this same letter had been sent to me again. My mom was about to die, so I decided I'd try anything. So that day I sent it out to 100 people I had met online, and my friends. My mother had been moved into critical condition, and was at the brink of death. A week later, I received a check in the mail for $1,000,000.00, enough money for my mothers operation. She is well now, thanks to this letter." Sarah Thomasman, age 43
As you can see, all you need to do, is send this out to as many people as you can. From a week to a month later, you will receive a check in the mail for a certain amount of money, depending on how many people you sent it to, and who they sent it to. Good luck, and await the check!
Good luck indeed, because that check will never arrive. "National Banks everywhere" are not giving away billions of dollars to senders of chain letters. The very idea that such a scheme will teach children "how to manage $$$" is laughable. As usual, the promise of easy money seems to be short-circuiting some people's brains.
'Attached to this message is a tracking program...'
Like all chain letters, this one is a tiresome waste of time and bandwidth, etc., etc., but it's also a noteworthy iteration of a persistent Netlore motif known as "email tracking" - in this context the supposed capacity, using special software, to monitor the path of any message through multiple forwards by an ever-increasing number of senders to an ever-increasing number of recipients.
As of this writing, no such software exists. (Granted, the use of HTML and Java in email makes tracking of a limited sort possible, but they are not universally used, hence it remains impossible to track the circulation of a chain email from beginning to end.) It is, however, a handy fiction for Net pranksters, who rely on "social engineering" to dupe users into replicating their handiwork.
In the present example, an "attached" tracking program is mentioned, lending surface credibility to the scheme... so long as recipients don't take notice of the fact that the message arrived in their inboxes bearing no attachment of any kind.
Evolution of an Internet hoax
The concept of email tracking as such first showed up in the Bill Gates $1,000 giveaway hoax, the earliest version of which appeared in November, 1997. That message began:
|Hello everybody, my name is Bill Gates. I have just written up an e-mail tracing program that traces everyone to whom this message is forwarded to...|
Some recipients joked at the time that the awful grammar proved Chairman Bill wrote the message himself. He denounced the whole thing as "hooey" in a scrupulously grammatical essay on spam written for the New York Times in March 1998.
A later and more widely circulated variant of the same text retained awkward phrasings from the original, though other parts were cleverly rewritten:
And thank you for signing up for my Beta Email Tracking Application or (BETA) for short. My name is Bill Gates. Here at Microsoft we have just compiled an e-mail tracing program that tracks everyone to whom this message is forwarded to...
Nike Teams Up with Microsoft
The motif showed up again a few months later in a new chain letter supposedly originating from Nike, Inc. In this message - one of several Internet pranks directed at the sports apparel manufacturer this year - it was alleged that Nike had been invited to help Microsoft test its "new email tracking software" and was giving away free merchandise to randomly selected participants who forwarded the message.
The Nike version suffered a relatively limited circulation, due in part to the fact that it was targeted at and mainly forwarded by college students. In addition, Nike aggressively fought the misinformation by issuing public statements disavowing it.
'AOL Hacker Riot' Warning
The infamous "AOL hacker riot" warning circulating since April 1998 revived the conceit of email tracking in an apparent effort to shore up hollow threats against recipients:
|You must forward this letter to 10 people or your account will be terminated on June 1, 1998. All recipients of this e-mail are being tracked. When you received this, when you forwarded it, who you forwarded it to, is all on record...|
America Online responded by denouncing the warning as a hoax and declaring that email tracking as described in the message is "impossible."
And the "riot" never came to pass.
'Forward this chain letter or DIE, DIE, DIE!!'
A 'death threat' chain letter emerged on AOL near the end of April 1998 and proved to be especially virulent among younger members, many of whom apparently took the threats quite seriously. In some versions the warning "Don't open in front of parents" appeared in the subject line header.
The body of the message read, in part:
|The creator of this mail has a program that will track down everyone who sent this mail and whoever that didn't send it will DIE DIE DIE DIE DIE DIE DIE DIE DIE DIE because this program can actually track down your address.|
There have been no reported deaths... so far.
The Disney version
In mid-August 1998, a brand new Disney variant clearly imitating the Bill Gates $1,000 chain letter appeared. This time its purported author was none other than "Walt Disney Jr." According to the partially revised message, the Disney company promised to award cash prizes and free trips to Disney World to the first 13,000 people who forwarded it to everyone they knew.
The rest of the text was simply cut and pasted from the original Gates version, right down to the telltale grammatical mistakes. It was a hoax, of course, for all the familiar reasons, not to mention the fact that there is no such person as Walt Disney Jr.
New "email tracking" variants continue to appear on a regular basis, despite the inherent absurdity of the idea.
Technological barriers aside, if anyone could afford the computing power to track chain letters, it would be companies like Microsoft or Disney. But why would they want to? The circulation of a chain letter is unpredictable and unstoppable. It grows at a logarithmic rate. For example, say I launch a chain letter by sending it to 10 people, who each forward it to 10 more people within a day of receiving it, as does every subsequent recipient. Here's the number of mailings I'd have to track and record in just eight days:
Day 1: 100
Day 2: 1,000
Day 3: 10,000
Day 4: 100,000
Day 5: 1,000,000
Day 6: 10,000,000
Day 7: 100,000,000
Day 8: 1,000,000,000
Yep, that's over a billion mailings - over a billion email addresses to retrieve, sort, and store in just over a week. And then there's the cash pay-outs to contend with! Mind you, no one chain letter can possibly achieve such a circulation, given that it's larger than the entire Internet population at present, but the numbers demonstrate that the tracking of any reasonably successful chain letter presents logistical headaches that far outweigh any possible benefits to the companies allegedly involved.