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Last Updated: Wednesday, 8 March 2006, 12:26 GMT
Thousands fall for Hotmail prank
By Tim Weber
Business editor, BBC News website

I'm always pleased when I see healthy page views for our business stories - but there are exceptions.

Old BBC story

Take this story: "MSN 'to charge user fee'" says the headline, and for a few weeks it has steadily moved up the ranks of our daily statistics. On Sunday it was the most-read business story, and on Monday and Tuesday it featured in the top five.

The hitch: It was written five years ago - on 25 February 2001.

Back then we reported comments made by a Microsoft executive, who said the company was considering introducing fees for its free Hotmail service.

It was one year after the dotcom crash and everybody, even mighty Microsoft, was pondering how to make some money on the internet.

So why is this old story so popular?

Forward first, ask questions later

Well, a chain e-mail is making the rounds: Microsoft will soon charge all Hotmail account holders, it claims, and backs up the assertion with a link to our story.

Hotmail log-on page in spring 2001
The Hotmail log-on page then...

Readers alerted me to the e-mail two weeks ago, even before I noticed the story in our rankings.

Some wanted confirmation whether the story was true. Others assumed that our servers had been hacked and demanded we should improve security.

Unfortunately many people failed to spot clear signs that this was an old story.

MSN Hotmail log-on page in 2006
... and MSN's Hotmail page now.

For starters, all our news stories have a timestamp - between the red BBC banner and the story headline.

And there are two more obvious give-aways:

  • Our website looks quite different today, because it had two redesigns since the MSN story was published. We use a different navigation, colour scheme and it is also a third wider, because most people have larger computer screens
  • Then there is Hotmail itself. Our old story features a little screen shot of the hotmail front page - five years ago. Hotmail users might notice that their log-in screen looks quite different these days

But as with all things spam and scam, some people forward first and ask questions later.

Breaking the chain

Several readers have suggested I should take down the old story, make it disappear from our servers.

Others say I should add a big disclaimer to the story, to alert people there is a scam making the rounds pointing to this story.

I don't believe either approach will work.

It is not unusual for pranksters and scammers to back up their sting with links to well-known websites.

I regularly get scam e-mail from alleged bankers or relatives of deposed dictators, asking me for help to squirrel away some money. The claim is usually backed up with a link to a CNN or BBC story about the firm or dictator.

At any given time there are thousands such scams, and if we were to take down every story the scammers link to, our archive would soon have plenty of bald patches.

Some people might actually start circulating scams just to persuade us to delete a story they don't like.

And given the sheer volume of these e-mails, it would be impossible for us to keep track and add disclaimers to every story that's abused that way.

All we can do is keep warning people about online fraud. Check the source. Verify wild claims on urban legend websites like Snopes or the Stella Awards.

Or simply copy a snippet of text from the questionable e-mail into any search engine. Very quickly you will find online references that prove that it's a scam.

It may hurt our page views a little. But I'm more than happy to take the hit.




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