Many of us have received e-mail from friends, family members, or coworkers that seemed too shocking, funny, or weird to be true. Will private cell phone numbers soon be provided to telemarketers, causing you to pay for everything from aggressive insurance sales calls to credit card companies asking you to perform balance transfers? Is Apple, Google, or Microsoft giving away huge sums of cash to people who can forward the most e-mails? And is every e-mail discussing a political candidate's background, beliefs, or former colleagues true?

Unfortunately, many frequently distributed e-mails can be categorized as "urban legends". Urban legends are myths, nonfactual information presented in such a way, usually with a small bit of factual information, making the entire story seem plausible. They can take on an air of truth when forwarded enough times by reputable people, and also when covered by media professionals or bloggers looking for a hot story but failing to perform enough background research. However, due to changes in technology or someone attempting to create a "copycat crime", some urban legends have actually become true.

As an example of the latter, the "Goodtimes virus", a popular urban legend that started in the early 1990's, claimed that by reading an email with the subject of "Good Times", your computer would be infected with a virus. The claims varied from your hard drive being formatted or physically damaged to your computer crashing or being physically destroyed. So many of these warnings were passed around the Internet that they themselves caused problems, clogging up peoples' inboxes.

Unfortunately, with exploits found in e-mail software such as Microsoft Outlook, viruses now can spread by people previewing or even downloading rogue e-mail messages.

Sadly, urban legends do cause other problems. If believed, some legends cause undue worry and stress on the recipients. Some legends will change peoples' voting behaviors by spreading inaccurate information. And, unknowingly distributing legends may get one marked as a spammer, even though the original messages may not be commercial in nature.

Before believing everything you read on the Internet, consider visiting the "Snopes" website that helps determine whether or not the amazing story you just perused is fictional or contains a shred of truth.

Note that not all supposed legends are false. You can be scammed out of money by calling people in certain area codes. You should be aware that delivery notification errors or auction notification messages may be fakes, and clicking links could exposure yourself to virus infection or identity theft. And some surprising quotes can be correctly attributed to their senders - but not all.

Now that you can help determine what is and what is not an urban legend, try to prevent the myths from spreading further. If you receive an urban legend and personally know the sender, consider responding (just to the individual and NOT to the entire list!) with a polite message saying thanks for the e-mail, but the information is actually an urban legend. Of course, depending on the sender and the story, especially if it involves religion or politics, you may just want to ignore the message altogether, so use your best judgment.

Urban legends have made their way around the Internet for years, presenting amazing stories that seem like they could be true - but usually aren't. Don't believe everything you read, even if you know the person sending the information. Check stories out for yourself first, and if you find them to be false, consider politely alerting their senders. Understand that the Internet's speed allows information to travel faster than ever before, but misinformation tends to spread even faster.

Copyright 2009 Andrew Malek.

Author's Bio: 

Andrew Malek owns the MalekTips computer and technology help site at http://www.malektips.com/. MalekTips offers tips and advice to help keep you safe on the Internet, including how to detect e-mail scams, detect and remove spyware, and adjust web browser security settings.