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Along with the thousands of real viruses that circulate the world, there are dozens of virus hoaxes that computer users have to contend with. Loosely speaking, a virus hoax is a rumor or warning about a virus that is spread from well-meaning person to well-meaning person, telling them not to download a program or take other action, or they will get a virus. But the virus does not exist, and in fact it is the virus warning that is really the only thing that is, in essence, a virus! If you think about it, the warning is what is spreading from system to system (even though it doesn't generally cause any damage aside from wasting people's time).
Most of these hoaxes circulate through email on the Internet, and warn of dire consequences such as having one's hard disk erased, should the email be read. The fact of the matter is that you cannot get a virus by reading email messages. It is true that you must be careful of files attached to email messages, because if the file is an executable program, Word document or other file capable of being infected with a true virus, it may have a virus in it. But the email itself cannot carry a real virus, and you cannot get a virus from reading a regular email message any more than you can get one from reading the words you are reading right now.
The way to combat virus hoaxes is to respond to whomever you got the message from, and politely inform them that the virus warning is a hoax. Then delete the message. If everyone who received one of these warnings did this once, the hoaxes would disappear. You may also want to refer them to the CIAC Internet Hoaxes web page, at http://ciac.llnl.gov/ciac/CIACHoaxes.html. You can find much more information there about virus hoaxes, including details on specific common ones.