The Internet has been a haven for the hoax. It makes it possible to con many more people, much more rapidly, and more anonymously.

It allows pranksters to get their message out to potentially millions of people. It has staying power because these claims seem to get passed on and on, sometimes the same one for years. And apparently the Internet carries a high degree of believability, because people will respond to some outrageous claims.

As a public service for those of us, I mean those of you, who may be tempted to respond to such messages, the following are some hoaxes to avoid:

Bill Gates Hoax

This one claims that the Microsoft chief (soon to be half-a-chief) was going to give away money and software if you forwarded this e-mail message to 1,000 of your closest friends. Not true µ Gates does not have any plans to fund our retirements or give us free copies of Windows 2001 (due out in 2003).

Disney Hoax

This e-mail message claimed that you could get a free trip for two to Disney World. The Disney people said that there’s no such offer. (I kept asking them over and over, but they insisted it’s not true.)

Miller Free Beer Hoax

Free beer, now we’re getting into some value. This hoax had very lofty goals. You had to get this e-mail message distributed to 2 million people to get a free six-pack. That’s a lot of drinking buddies. Either we didn’t reach our quota or this one wasn’t real either. Hoax is the safe bet here, too. Other hoaxes have included The Gap giving away free clothing, IBM giving away computers, and Honda giving away free cars. Once again, don’t count on it. (But if you hear that Mercedes is giving away free cars, please contact me immediately. That would require further research.)

In order to help our readers more quickly identify an Internet hoax, the following is the full text of a typical hoax. No matter how clever and tempting, you should not respond to such a message.

Mazurkiewicz Hoax

This anonymous e-mail message says that if you forward the message to exactly 11,356 people by September 31, all of your children will become millionaires and will buy you a retirement villa, and give you six cars.

All of the stocks you own will increase seven-fold and will split, ensuring you millions. The price of gas will go down by $.32 a gallon. (This sentence alone should signal that it’s a hoax.) Service technicians will appear out of nowhere and will ask to work for your contracting firm in the exact numbers that you need.

All of your customers will experience perfect heating, cooling, ventilating, and refrigerating with no complaints µ not even from the jerks. And all customers will sign perpetual service contracts that make sure they, and their heirs, get proper service.

Seriously, though, hoaxes are a colossal waste of time and energy. It’s a waste of your time sending out numerous e-mails and/or making phone calls to the hoax’s target company. And it’s a waste of the target company’s time having to respond over and over to untrue claims.

When reading amazing claims in unsolicited e-mail, two bits of age-old advice still apply:

1. There’s no such thing as a free lunch (or free money, free trips, free beer, etc.).

2. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.