The content of chain letters was especially created to force recipients to forward them to their relatives and friends. This type of letter appeared long before the Internet. It was considered a prank to get people to accurately rewrite a letter by hand several times and send it to as many friends as requested.

There are several types of chain letters. The most widespread are those which guarantee happiness in all spheres of a recipient’s life if they forward them to a requested number of people. They are called Good-Luck Letters. In contrast to this there are also Bad-Luck Letters, so called because they warn of impending disasters (acts of terror, epidemics, etc) and a recipient is in turn encouraged to warn their friends about them. Chain letters are also used to search for missing relatives – the most important thing being to involve as many people as possible.

However not all chain letters are harmless and distributed with good intention. Some messages ask recipients to send a small sum of money to certain addressees. In many countries such letters are considered fraud and their distributors are subject to judicial responsibility. In addition, fraudsters use chain letters to distribute malware – a letter may contain a link to a malicious website. A recipient is lured into visiting the site on some pretext or other, for example they are warned about a virus epidemic and are offered the possibility to download an ‘antivirus program’. Chain letters may also be used as a mechanism to distribute compromising materials or to spread panic.

However chain letters are not just responsible for wasting peoples’ time and bringing down their mood. They play with peoples’ minds, making them send such letters to as many people as possible in order to warn them about some forthcoming disasters or to achieve some promised happiness. The number of chain letters on the Internet is growing exponentially. A ‘chain letter’ mailing may reach considerable volumes within a few hours. This may result in a considerable increase in mail traffic, which is paid for by a user who is definitely not interested in finding unwanted correspondence in their inbox. However it should be stressed again that this type of mass mailing is really influenced by how many users succumb to it.

A recipient is not always able to distinguish a chain letter because usually the sender is not a spammer, but someone known to the addressee. These letters cannot be detected by standard filters because users send them from their local machines with real reply addresses. Only content analysis allows the filtration of this type of email.

Chain letters have a well-defined structure. They begin with an appeal to read the letter to the end. Then comes either a warning message (most often it warns of a looming ‘threat’ to humanity) or an offer to undergo a test (usually about one’s relations with the opposite sex or one’s bosses) or just a touching story. At the end of the letter a recipient is asked to forward it to as many people as possible, either through threatening them with grief (the death of their relatives, 10 years of misfortune, loss of a lover) or promising them all sorts of benefits (a long hoped-for call/meeting or wealth).

Below is the text of a ‘Good-Luck letter’. One can only wonder at the people who swallow this type of bait.

If you have nothing to do now I can offer you a little entertainment – a psychological game. Try it and I hope that you will like it.
The main thing is to read it line-by-line without skipping any. Strange, but it works! Follow the points strictly in the order in which they appear. It will take 3 min. The person who sent me this letter said that their wish had come true 10 min after they read the letter. But you mustn’t cheat!
Take a pen and a paper. Write the names of people that you know. Follow your instinct!
Do not read the letter to the end, otherwise you will not reap the rewards. Read it line-by-line and perform the tasks one after the other.1. First write down column numbers from 1 to 11
2. Write any two figures in columns 1 and 2
3. Write the names of two members of the opposite sex in columns 3 and 7.
4. Write any names (for example, your friends or family members) in columns 4, 5 and 6. Do not cheat, otherwise you will regret it.
5. Write the names of four songs in columns 8,9,10 and 11.
6. Finally, make a wish!

and now here is the key to the game…

The letter then goes on to describe a pointless number-crunching process, at the end of which the recipient is asked to forward the letter to 20 people that they know.