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Cancer Health Center

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Emailed Health Warnings: Hoax or Fact?

Is that email message alerting you to a new health hazard bogus or valid?

Why Do We Fall for These?

It's easy to be sucked in by messages alerting us to health dangers. "These are 'wow' stories," says Buhler, " ... as in 'Wow, did you hear about Britney Spears?' or 'Wow you should have seen the accident I saw on the freeway.'"

And they sound legitimate, often claiming to come from a reputable hospital, physician, or health organization -- even though the sources named often turn out to be fictitious.

Today's climate is often one of anxiety when it comes to our health, furthering the belief that the health warning could be true, even if it sounds unlikely. "Whoever thought you could get sick and die from eating spinach?" Mikkelson asks.

Why Do We Forward the Emails?

After reading the fearful news, there's often a knee-jerk reaction to share it, says Pauline Wallin, PhD, a clinical psychologist and life coach in Camp Hill, Pa. An emailed health alert may come with a "hook," she says. "It often includes a personal story about someone. It arouses our emotions -- outrage, greed, or fear."

So when the message then begs the recipient to "share this with everyone you know," it's human nature to do so, she says. "When you are emotionally aroused, you are more vulnerable to do what an authority tells you to do," she says. Taking action may be a way to help quell your anxiety.

Forwarding the news might boost a sender's sense of importance among friends. "Some people like to be the town crier, the first one to tell their friends something they might not have heard," Buhler says. "Others send them for sincere reason of concern."

How to Spot the Next One -- Maybe

How to avoid getting fooled next time? There's no foolproof method, but experts have some suggestions on how to spot the hoaxes.

"If the email is the only place you are seeing it [information about the hazard], there is a reason," says Jeff Stier, spokesman for the American Council on Science and Health, in New York. If you don't see or hear the same information on the nightly news, a mainstream newspaper, or a credible web site, be suspicious, he says.

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