Chain Letters
Speech Issues  
Study Guide

1. What is a Chain Letter?

  • Chain Letter: "A letter directing the recipient to send out multiple copies so that its circulation increases in a geometric progression as long as the instructions are carried out." Webster's II, New Riverside University Dictionary, 1984. 
  • Definition from US Postal Service

  • A chain letter is a "get rich quick" scheme that promises that your mail box will soon be stuffed full of cash if you decide to participate. You're told you can make thousands of dollars every month if you follow the detailed instructions in the letter.

2. How Will You Recognize a Chain Letter?

According to the US Department of Energy-Division of CIAC, all chain letters follow a similar pattern.
  1. A hook - to catch your interest so you will read the remiander of the letter, such as "Virus Alert" or "Get Rich Now"
  2. A threat - to warn you about what will happen if you do not comply with letter and continue the chain. The warning usually sounds very technical and plays on a person's greedy or sympathetic nature.
  3. A request - usually asking you to "Distribute this letter to as many people as possible." The letters never mention clogging the Internet or the fact that the message is a fake, they only want you to pass it on to others. 
Chain letters usually do not have the name and contact information of the original sender so it is impossible to check on its authenticity. Legitimate warnings and solicitations will always have complete contact information from the person sending the message and will often be signed with a cryptographic signature, such as PGP to assure its authenticity.

3. What Should You Do If You Get A Chain Letter?

The CIAC recommends you either delete the letter or send it on to one person. That one person is your local security officer or system administrator, thereby allowing them to investigate and warn their users not to pass on the letter. Do not send it to your friends and relatives because you will be clogging up the network. In addition, you lend your and your company's reputation to the message, making it appear to be authentic even when that is not the case. Hit the delete button instead and put that message where it belongs.

4. Is Chain Letter a Legal Practice? 

  • The U.S. postal service has many times ruled chain letters illegal. According to A. Caggiano, assistant to the postal inspector in charge, as quoted in the cle.misc newsgroup on 10 October 1996, 
"A chain letter may base its claim of legality on elements of legality of the scheme such as providing "reports" or other items of alleged value to payers of the "participation fee." Such elements do not immunize this chain letter scheme from challenge under the postal laws. "
This applies even to chain letters posted from overseas, if they contain any addresses that involve the U.S. mails. Of course, they may also be illegal under the laws of those countries. 

The location has more information on U.S. regulations. 

  • Most college and universities have similar policies in effect. For example, NCSU's website states "use of electronic mail and other network communications facilities to harass, offend, or annoy other users of the network is forbidden." And Rocherster's policy states "under NO circumstances should you reply to the chain letter or pass it along."

5. Chain Letter Advice

    1. Don't respond to--or forward--any chain letter. 
    2. Give up your dreams of GETTING RICH QUICK and MAKING MONEY FAST. They'll only lead to nightmares. 
    3. Avoid any business opportunity whose backbone is the recruitment--by you--of new investors. 
    4. Never send money, even a few dollars, in response to an unsolicited email or a posting you spotted on the Web. 
    5. Before investing in any opportunity you've found on the Web, check it out with The Better Business Bureau, as well as the office of your state's attorney general. 
    6. Watch out for buzzwords: downline, matrix, recruitment, cell, and network. These words and their synonyms are often used to dress up classic pyramid schemes. 
    7. Report suspicious email solicitations immediately to your local postal inspector or to the US Postal Service
    8. Report suspicious investment opportunity postings to the Web site administrator as well as the appropriate governmental and law enforcement agencies. 
    9. Just because a mailing or posting includes references doesn't make it legitimate. Those "satisfied customers" could well be part of the scheme. 
    10. Never agree to a meeting with someone who has posted a fabulous offer. In-person meetings simply give the con artist the chance to turn on high-pressure sales tactics. 
    11. Don't assume that a posting or email that offers you the chance to purchase product inventory is any more legitimate than simple mailing list or chain letter cons. Often the product doesn't exist or is worth far less than you'll pay for it. 
    12. Finally, think before you respond. Common sense is the best protection against illogical schemes that prey on blind greed. 

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