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Should Virus Warning Emails be Forwarded?

Whenever a significant new virus or other computer security threat emerges, it is not unusual for various warnings about the threat to begin circulating via email.

While the willingness to let others know about a potential computer security threat is commendable, forwarding a "virus warning" email may not be the best way to approach the issue. Like other email forwards, they tend to mutate as they travel from inbox to inbox. Even if the original message was accurate, ongoing modifications can mean that the information can quite quickly lose its relevance. The perceived danger can be significantly exaggerated and important details can become false or misleading. Also, such messages often continue to circulate for months or even years after the described threat has subsided.

For example, in mid 2005, a trojan was distributed via an email message that claimed Osama Bin Laden had been captured and hanged. Soon after, exaggerated and highly inaccurate warnings about the threat began circulating. Versions of this garbled "warning" message continue to circulate years later even though the "virus" described has long since ceased to be a significant danger. Another version combines the Bin Laden warning with an outright hoax about the non-existent "Olympic Torch" virus.

Even if a warning was originally valid, simply pointing friends to a write-up about the threat on a reputable anti-virus website is likely to be a better course of action than forwarding a full description via email. Unlike an email forward, an expert, web-based write-up will continue to contain accurate and up-to-date information about the security threat described. If you do feel that it is necessary to send or forward a virus warning via email, at least ensure that the information is clear, up-to-date, accurate and contains checkable references.

An outdated or inaccurate warning is unlikely to be very helpful and may even be counterproductive. In fact, misleading or outdated email virus warnings can develop some of the characteristics of the threats they claim to describe. Like email worms, such warnings can pointlessly consume bandwidth, add to inbox clutter and waste the time of both recipients and computer help and support staff obligated to deal with enquiries. Moreover, given the number of virus warning emails that are outright hoaxes, some hoax-weary recipients may dismiss even valid descriptions as bogus.

So think twice before you forward the next virus warning message that comes your way. Ultimately, taking the time to ensure that your friends have a good overall knowledge of computer security issues is likely to be a lot more productive than blindly forwarding virus warnings. For example, teaching a computer "newbie" friend how to install reliable anti-virus software, and keep it updated, is probably going to be a lot more helpful than firing off endless virus warning messages.

Last updated: 29th October 2009
First published: 18th September 2006

Write-up by Brett M. Christensen