On the Internet, A Sea of Suckers and Fools

By Michelle Singletary

P.T. Barnum is often quoted as having said, "There's a sucker born every minute."

Turns out there's no evidence that Barnum ever made such a declaration. Interesting, isn't it, that one of the most famous quotes about the gullibility of people is falsely attributed to Barnum?

Still, the quote holds true. In this Internet era, there really are as many suckers as there are megabytes.

Take for example, a very annoying e-mail making the rounds. The subject line says, "PLEEEEEASE REEEEEAD! IT WAS ON GOOD MORNING AMERICA TODAY SHOW."

The "it" the e-mail is referring to is a story that Microsoft and AOL are running a tracking test and if you forward the e-mail, you could get $245 for every person you send it to. The e-mail goes on to claim, "For every person that you sent it to that forwards it on, Microsoft will pay you $243 and for every third person that receives it, you will be paid $241. Within two weeks, Microsoft will contact you for your address and then send you a check."

Oh, and to make it all seem so legit, the writer (you can't really tell who it is) claims he or she got a check for $24,800 two weeks after receiving the e-mail. Then the person urges, "Please forward this to as many people as possible. You are bound to get at least $10,000. We're not going to help them out with their e-mail beta test without getting a little something for our time. My brother's girlfriend got in on this a few months ago. She showed me her check. It was for the sum of $4,324.44."

Don't you just love that touch of 44 cents?

I've gotten at least half a dozen of these e-mails.

You would think I wouldn't have to say this, but here goes: You are a sucker if you believe this is true.

What is wrong with you people? Stop forwarding this darn e-mail. It's a hoax, according to a spokesman for Microsoft.

Fortunately, the e-mail doesn't contain a virus, so it's not too harmful. But what about others that are forwarded that result in undue worry? Most recently, I received an e-mail with a dire warning.

It claimed that the plastic credit-card-looking room keys that hotels often use contain personal information, such as your credit card number and expiration date and home address. Don't just turn the cards in at the end of your stay, the e-mail warns. Anybody, especially an unscrupulous hotel employee, can take the card and -- using a scanning device -- access your information.

I was alarmed. After all, identity theft is on the rise. Recent surveys estimate that nearly 10 million consumers are victimized by some form of identity theft each year, according to the Federal Trade Commission. Identity theft occurs when your personal information is stolen and used without your knowledge to make purchases or commit crimes. It can cost you a lot of time and money to clear your name if you are a victim of identity theft.

I was worried that out there in some trash can was a plastic hotel key I had discarded with my personal information.

Turns out this, too, is not true.

These cards do not supply guests' personal information such as credit card number, home address or e-mail address, according to the American Hotel & Lodging Association, which put out a statement to try to dispel this myth.

"On most hotel key cards, there is an encoder system with numbers only," explained Victor Glover, senior vice president of safety and security for Accor North America and chair of the association's Loss Prevention Committee.

Glover further explained, "The number represents the date and time a guest checks in and out. Once that date and time have passed, the key is no longer active. The magnetic strip on the back of the card carries the encoder numbers that will correspond to the strips in the door itself. The activation of the key card is solely based on how long a guest is staying, not credit card, Social Security and other personal information."

Okay, so I was a sucker. But this particular e-mail sounded so plausible.

If you are curious about a suspicious e-mail, there is nothing wrong with checking it out. Try this Web site:

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. In fact, the Microsoft/AOL money giveaway is No. 2 on the site's "25 Hottest Urban Legends" list.

What you should never do is forward these e-mails. And if you do, don't think it's a harmless action.

Here's the note I got along with the e-mail promoting the bogus Microsoft giveaway -- "Sorry about the mail of this sort, but maybe we can benefit from this ... who knows? Try it yourself, what can you lose?"

Folks, in the end somebody could lose. Forwarding these e-mails could result in many of your friends, co-workers or family members ending up on spam e-mail lists. That, in turn, could increase the amount of junk mail they get. And that might lead to somebody becoming a sucker who loses some real money.

Researcher Tara S. Prasad contributed to this column.

-- On the air: Michelle Singletary discusses personal finance Tuesdays on NPR's "Day to Day" program and online at

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-- By mail: Readers can write to her at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.

-- By e-mail: snipped-for-privacy@washpost.com.

Copyright 2006 The Washington Post Company

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