Chain letters: forward this or you will have bad luck for three years

In Cyber Security, Financial Services Technology by Amaya Swanson

Chain letters, as most of us remember them, used to be annoying emails that displayed hundreds of people’s email addresses as it was forwarded from person to person (blind carbon copy was a Great Unknown back then, evidently). The first known chain letter dates back to 1888, which consisted of a letter soliciting dimes, and instructing the readers to make copies and put them in the hands of a specified number of recipients.

Now chain letters are passed along through social media and take on several forms and risks, which we cover below:

What are the different kinds of chain letters?

Gain Luck or Avoid Bad Luck: Repost or you will have bad luck forever / someone will die / you will have years of good fortune. The clickbait and tabloid-like headlines gather people’s attention, especially those who are superstitious and will repost “just in case!”.

Something for Nothing:Repost and you will win a fortune from Bill Gates / Disney is giving away tickets to everyone who reposts / claim the copyrights to your content by reposting, so Facebook can’t steal it.

Show You Care: Long prose about various topics, which at the end, the reader is instructed to repost “just to show who’s paying attention” or “to see who cares”.

Get to Know You: The brief questionnaires, cleverly disguised as an exercise in “getting to know your friends”, is a social engineering and scammer dream. The questions typically contain common security questions that can be gathered and used for malicious purposes. We cover how to protect yourself on social media in this post.

Why do chain letters circulate?

An article for Anthropology in Practice on Scientific American summarizes the why quite well:

“Chain letters hit the right chord of shock, or trigger the right degree of anxiety, which prompts the reader to share the stories or information they contain. To this end, chain letters are actually really well suited to social media because so little effort on the part of the reader is required to pass them on. And the transparency offered by sharing or liking adds a degree of authenticity that is necessary to their survival.”

What are the risks?

Most of the time, the risks are low, and chain letters are just annoying. But every so often, chain letters contain links to malware, or sites that expose the user’s content. One of the widely circulated chain letters originated in 2009, where the chain claimed that Facebook would charge for the platform, unless users clicked on a fake protest page. The protest page was, of course, fraudulent and contained a script that hijacked users’ computers.

What’s the solution?

Beyond common sense, which most people can apply and understand that Bill Gates is not going to give you millions of dollars for reposting a canned paragraph, you can simply do your research and check the validity of the claim. Additionally, sites like, “engaged in a battle of misinformation” as they put it, provide reliable fact-finding research for the content of chain letters, or various other rumors / claims.

How can you stop them?

You can’t, unfortunately. People will always repost dumb things on the internet without thinking, because they’re people. You can educate friends and family, by sending them links to that debunks whatever claim is circulating, or you can simply ignore them… but just don’t repost! 


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