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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 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.

Also, if the alert bases the warning only on a "friend-of-a-friend" story, it's suspect because it lacks firsthand information, says Buhler.

Check the sources before you forward anything. If it's a little unclear where the warning comes from, that's another bad sign. "The first thing you look for is who is making the claim," says Marc Siegel, MD, a New York physician and author of False Alarm: The Truth about the Epidemic of Fear. Find out the credential of the person or organization alerting you to the danger.

Some emailed health alerts smack of "insider information," Buhler says, and that's another reason to be suspicious. The message may even say that "establishment media" or "the experts" don't want you to know this.

While some health alerts begin as intentional hoaxes, Buhler says others may start out as true and get changed along the way due to misunderstandings.

Tracking the origin of a hoax is difficult, even for experts, says Mikkelson. "It's very rare you can get back to the beginning of one," she says.

But after numerous phone calls and Internet searches, Mikkelson and others who specialize in investigating health alerts can usually figure out if one's true or false, although some health warnings remain in "disputed" status -- at least temporarily.

Once a health alert has circulated enough on the Internet, chances are good it can be checked out at sites such as Truth or Fiction, Snopes, or the page maintained by the CDC.

Reviewed on March 16, 2007

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