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Hotmail hoax email: spam or we kick you off!

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A bogus email sent out to Hotmail users claims they'll be cut off if they don't prove they're using their accounts. In order to do so, all they've got to do is forward the email to other Hotmail users.

Something of an intellectual breakthrough, this one. Rather than using security holes in the email client and a meat-headed piece of coding of the Melissa persuasion, you just send an email to people encouraging them to do all of the viral distribution work themselves. Granted, the perpetrator doesn't seem to have figured out how to get them to send out an actual virus as well as forwarding spurious messages, but it's certainly got Microsoft's attention.

The message purports to be from one Jon Henard of Hotmail, and claims the service has too many customers. This does have some plausibility, as Hotmail has 68 million, and some free services do actually kick you off if you go quiet for too long. Hotmail itself does this after 90 days, but more widespread sackings would surely be a cull too far.

The mechanism too is tried and tested. Chain emails have a long, inglorious and largely harmless history on the net, one of the best and most durable being the old Walt Disney Jr and Microsoft scam, which purports to offer users rewards for co-operating in the development of an email tracking system. We mention this one largely as an attempt to reduce the number of tip-offs we get about it every year, but it has a certain elegance - it's the sort of 1984 plot you just want to believe is real.

The latest Hotmail one differs of course in that it uses fear, rather than the usual greed, as impetus. But trust us, automation and security holes works best. ®

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