SAN FRANCISCO (05/26/2000) - As far as I'm concerned, e-mail is just about the best reason (after eBay Inc.) to have a computer. If the people you need to get in touch with are wired like you, sending an electronic message is quicker and cheaper than mailing a letter. It's also clearer, more concise, and way cheaper than a phone call. And e-mail enables you to attach and forward electronic documents, images, links, and other messages.
That last category--forwarded electronic messages--is a decidedly mixed blessing. Say someone sends you an urgent alert about antiperspirants causing breast cancer, a dire computer virus warning, or a petition to prevent funding cuts to the NEA and public broadcasting. These issues concern you, but before you forward the message to the Shorthaired Terrier Fanciers mailing list, you'd better check first that it isn't completely bogus. In addition to looking like a gullible dope, you'd be adding more junk to the pile of spam, hoaxes, and useless blather your hound-loving cohorts have to slog through.
Fortunately, you don't have to guess which messages are real. Numerous Web sites are dedicated to unmasking electronic fabrications that just won't die.
Rob Rosenberger's Computer Virus Myths page (www.kumite.com/myths) is the first place to look when you receive a message warning about imminent widespread viral destruction. Rosenberger is merciless with self-appointed virus experts and the credulous publications that quote them. Commercial antivirus sites like Symantec Corp.'s AntiVirus Research Center (www.sarc.com/avcenter/hoax.html) maintain virus hoax lists. And be sure to look at the excellent Internet Hoaxes page of the U.S. Department of Energy's Computer Incident Advisory Capability site at ciac.llnl.gov/ciac/CIACHoaxes.html. Check the hoax listings at these sites before forwarding a virus alert to Aunt Betty.
If the suspect dispatch in your in-box smells more like an outright scam than a hoax, it's time to consult the Internet ScamBusters at www.scambusters.org. The site tracks e-mail scams and investigates other electronic flimflam (think EBay Furby fraud). Subscribe to the electronic newsletter at www.scambusters.com/scambusters.html. It's free.
Though fascinating, urban myths take time to wade through and discard. The next time you receive a story from a "friend of a friend" claiming he had one of his kidneys stolen, go to the San Fernando Valley Folklore Society's Urban Legends Reference Pages at www.snopes.com. The organization's e-mail-hoax page is at www.snopes.com/inboxer/inboxer.htm. You can obtain information about subscribing to the Society's mailing list at www.onelist.com/group/urban-legends.
One frequent type of e-mail hoax reports that Congress is about to create legislation affecting a particular issue, such as funding for National Public Radio or the National Endowment for the Arts. If you want to confirm that the legislation exists, go right to the source: the U.S. government's legislative information site, Thomas (named after Jefferson), at thomas.loc.gov.
Finally, here are a few other tips for identifying hoaxes: If the message was forwarded to a zillion people before it reached you--indicated by many levels of greater-than symbols (>>>>) at the start of each line--chances are it's a hoax. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. If it urges you to forward it to your friends, don't. Send them enough chain letters, and your friends may stop opening mail from you altogether.
Filter Incoming Mail by Size
Here in the Virgin Islands, our phone lines are very noisy, resulting in slow connection speeds and frequent lost connections. Though I ask folks not to send me large e-mail attachments, sometimes someone does. Can I put some kind of filter in to reject any messages over a certain size (like 10KB, perhaps)?
John Ellis, St. Croix, U.S. Virgin IslandsYou don't have to live on a small Caribbean island to want to limit the size of the attachments your e-mail program will download. I recently had to help a friend recover from a 17MB image-laden Word document attachment--a real showstopper. Both Internet Explorer's Outlook Express and Netscape Communicator's Messenger mail programs let you reject messages larger than a size you specify. Setting up the filter is easy in Messenger, but you have to know where to look. Choose Edit*Preferences, click the Disk Space branch under Mail & Newsgroups, check Do not store messages locally that are larger than, and fill in your preferred maximum message size. I'd go with something a little larger than 10KB--say 100KB, or even bigger if you usually obtain good 56-kbps modem connections. Click OK to finish.
To create a rule that filters out large attachments in Outlook Express 5.0, choose Tools*Message Rules*Mail, and scroll down the list of conditions until you find and check Where the message size is more than size. Then scroll down the list of actions until you find and check Do not Download it from the server. Click the underlined size link in the Rule Description box, and set your maximum allowed message size. Click OK twice to create the filter.
Microsoft Outlook--the personal information manager and mail application that comes with Microsoft Office--makes the task considerably easier. To filter out big messages, choose Tools*Options, click the Mail Delivery tab, and check and configure the Don't download messages larger than setting located near the bottom of the dialog box. Note: By the time you read this, Outlook Express 5.5 and Messenger 6 may both be available, and some of the steps may differ in the new versions.
How Do I Retire an old PGP Key?
I read with interest the item about Pretty Good Privacy in the January column [www.pcworld.com/jan00/hh_internet]. Some months ago I downloaded, installed, and began using PGP. I even uploaded my public key to one of the PGP keyservers so other PGP users could verify my messages and send me encrypted mail. Then I switched computers and lost track of my PGP key files. I reinstalled PGP and created a new set of public and personal keys, but I can't remove my old (and now useless) public key from the public keyservers. I don't recall my old passphrase and don't have the old keyset. How can I remove the old key from the keyserver?
Edward J. Czilli, Ann Arbor, Michigan
The short answer is, you can't. Not that it's a terrible tragedy. As you note, you can create a new certificate. If someone looks up your old key on the server and uses it to send you an encrypted message, you'll just have to send them an explanatory note together with a pointer to your new public key. It's important to keep a backup copy of your private key and to choose a passphrase you're sure to remember (or store it somewhere you'll be sure to find it). You can create and store revocation certificates in advance to remove your public key from the server without requiring a passphrase. Should you need to create a new pair of keys, you can easily retire the public part of the old one from keyservers.
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Scott Spanbauer is a contributing editor for PC World.
Scope Out Your DSL Options
High-speed internet access via Digital Subscriber Line is here--for most of us.
But DSL service may not be available in your area, usually because you reside too far from your phone company's central office switch or are served by aging or multiplexed lines. Competing DSL vendors may be eager to serve you (albeit at a higher price in many cases) and may offer DSL variations that reach farther than Ma Bell's brand. To see every DSL offering for your street address, check DSLReports at www.dslreports.com.
Download of the Month
Index CDs Quickly With CDScan
First you found the internet, then you got yourself a cable modem and a CD burner. Now you're the proud owner of about 100 CD-Recordable discs with MP3 files, digital video, downloaded software, and the rest of the digital smorgasbord. But how do you know which disc a file is stored on?
I tried to solve this problem by writing a batch file that would snag a CD's directory listing and append it to a text file. I soon gave up on the laborious task, however. Fortunately, Mike Monti's free CDScan utility does perfectly what I need it to do. Insert a disc, enter a disc name, click the utility's Scan button, and CDScan adds the disc's directory listing to your database. You can search for a particular file name, song title, or artist, or just find out what's on disc number 37. Download the 2.2MB program from FileWorld or from Mike's site at home.mminternet.com/~mmonti/CDScan.htm. The current version of CDScan doesn't let you print out a particular CD's directory listing, which would be great for stuffing into the jewel case.