November 03, 2023
Understanding identity theft
Monitor any potential threats to your personal or financial information. Understand the different forms of identity theft and how they can affect you.Learn more
Have you ever received an unusual email from a friend or family member that pressured you to forward the message to your contacts? If so, you’ve likely encountered a chain letter. Learn more about what chain letters are and their origins.
A chain letter is a message that tries to pressure its recipient to pass or forward the message to more of their contacts. Chain letters often specify how many people you should forward the message to. Today, chain letters exist in email, social media, or via text message.
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Here are a few different types of chain messages that you may come across.
Some chain letters promise the recipient more money if they forward the message to their friends. For example, a chain letter might say, “Forward this message to ten of your friends within the next 24 hours and you’ll receive $1,000” or “New York lottery winner John Smith is giving away $10,000 to the next 100 people who forward this email. Forward this to your friends to share the wealth!” Of course, no one actually receives any money¬—it’s just a prank.
Some chain letters are part of Ponzi schemes. These Ponzi scheme chain letters may convince recipients to send a small amount of money to a person or location (for example, a specific PayPal account). Recipients are promised that they will eventually receive a larger sum of money, like hundreds or thousands of dollars, but unfortunately, they will never get the money. These Ponzi scheme chain letters benefit scammers as they can garner hundreds or even thousands of dollars from unsuspecting victims.
Some chain messages just include a funny story that may be fictional or genuine, then instruct recipients to forward the message to more of their contacts to spread the joy.
Chain letters may include messages that warn recipients that they will have bad luck if they don’t forward the message to their friends. For example, a chain letter may read, “Forward this to ten friends in the next ten minutes or you’ll have bad luck for the next ten years.” On the other hand, some chain letters promise good luck to recipients if they forward a message. For example, these good luck chain letters might say something like, “Forward this message for good luck next week.”
Some chain letters are created to induce panic. These chain letters may include warnings of conspiracy theories, recent crimes, viruses, or any kind of scary story. These stories are often entirely fictional but can seem convincing enough to the reader. These letters encourage the recipient to forward the message to warn their friends and family members.
Before email was invented, chain letters were physical letters that had to be mailed out. One of the earliest known modern chain letters was in 1888 when a Methodist missionary training school circulated letters to raise funds for their school. The letter asked recipients to send the missionaries a dime and to then send the letter to three friends.
If you ever receive a chain letter, ignore it, delete it, or throw it out. There are no repercussions for ignoring a chain letter, no matter how scary they may seem. In fact, by mailing certain chain letters, you could be participating in a federal crime, so it’s best to break the chain and ignore them.
Email is a helpful tool, but it’s important that you use it wisely. Learn more cybersecurity tips like phishing emails and how you can avoid this common internet scam.
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