A typical chain letter consists of a message that attempts to convince the recipient to make a number of copies of the letter and then pass them on to a certain number of recipients (either a predefined number or as many as possible). The "chain" is actually an exponentially growing pyramid (a tree graph) that cannot be sustained indefinitely. Common methods used in chain letters include emotionally manipulative stories, get-rich-quick pyramid schemes, and the exploitation of superstition to threaten the recipient with bad luck or even physical violence or death if he or she "breaks the chain" and refuses to adhere to the conditions set out in the letter. Originally, chain letters were letters one received in the mail. Today, chain letters are often sent via email messages, postings on social network sites, and text messages.
There are two main types of chain letters:
- Hoaxes - Hoaxes attempt to trick or defraud users. A hoax could be malicious, instructing users to delete a file necessary to the operating system by claiming it is a virus. It could also be a scam that convinces users to send money or personal information. Phishing attacks could fall into this.
- Urban legends - Urban legends are designed to be redistributed and usually warn users of a threat or claim to be notifying them of important or urgent information. Another common form are the emails that promise users monetary rewards for forwarding the message or suggest that they are signing something that will be submitted to a particular group. Urban legends usually have no negative effect aside from wasted time.
Some colleges and military bases have passed regulations stating that in the private mail of college students and military personnel, respectively, chain letters are not authorized and will be thrown out. However, it is often difficult to distinguish chain letters from genuine correspondence.
The oldest known channel for chain letters is written, or printed, on letters on paper. These might be exchanged hand-to-hand or distributed through the mail. One notorious early example was the "Prosperity Club" or "Send-a-Dime" letter. This letter started in Denver, Colorado in 1935, based on an earlier luck letter. It soon swamped the Denver post office with hundreds of thousands of letters before spilling into St. Louis and other cities.
Chain letters take religious perspectives especially relating to Christianity. Often these letters originate from photocopy centers, claiming to have originated from the Pope, with the intent of persuading people to make copies of such letters. The content usually gives one or two examples of people, sometimes public figures who obeyed and were rewarded and others who disobeyed and suffered heavily, which may even include cases of deaths and of someone becoming a millionaire overnight. These types of letters will flourish for some days and will die out naturally, partly based on the economic realities of the people, and maybe many would also reason that if that was truly the original letter, then it cannot contain cases of people who had broken or continued the chain.
Some email messages sent as chain letters may seem fairly harmless, for example, a grammar school student wishing to see how many people can receive his/her email for a science project, but can grow exponentially and be hard to stop. Messages sometimes include phony promises from companies or wealthy individuals (such as Bill Gates) promising a monetary reward to everyone who receives the message. They may also be politically motivated, such as "Save the Scouts, forward this to as many friends as possible" or a concept that a popular TV or radio show may be forced off the air. Some, like the "Hawaiian Good Luck Totem" which has spread in thousands of forms, threaten users with bad luck if not forwarded. There are many forms of chain email that threaten death or the taking of one's soul by telling tales of others' deaths, such as the Katu Lata Kulu chain email, stating that if it is not forwarded, the receivers of the message will be killed by the spirit.
Platforms like Facebook and YouTube can host chain letters playing with users' emotions. They may also be in the form of a warning, such as stories of escaped convicts et cetera which urge the reader to pass the message on. One chain letter distributed on MSN Hotmail began, "Hey it's Tara and John the directors of MSN"... and tells you that your account will be deleted if you don't send that message to everyone.
Chain letters within social media platforms became widespread on Myspace (in the form of Myspace bulletins) and YouTube (in the form of video comments) as well as on Facebook through messages or applications. For instance, the chain post/email of Carmen Winstead, supposedly about a girl from Indiana who was pushed down a sewage drain in a firedrill, states that, "if you do not repost/send this to 10 people, Carmen will find you and kill you." Chain letters are often coupled with intimidating hoaxes or the promise of providing the sender with "secret" information once they've forwarded the message.
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A chain letter may qualify as a fraudulent activity, as in the case of a pyramid scheme which asks recipients to funnel money up the chain while requesting the letter be distributed to multiple new recipients.
The legality of chain letters comes into question when they attempt to funnel monetary value to a single source. When a chain letter suggests a game of chance or a lottery with an opportunity for financial gain it is considered fraudulent under Title 18, United States Code, Section 1302, the Postal Lottery Statute. Chain letters that ask for items of minor value such as business cards or recipes are not covered by this law.
If pyramid scheme chain letters are sent through email it may constitute wire fraud. An email chain letter may contain trojans or another type of computer virus which is covered under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) [18 U.S.C. Section 1030]. This law makes it illegal to distribute computer codes or place them in the stream of commerce if their intent is to cause damage or economic loss.
- An episode of Wings had the characters Fay and Antonio receive chain letters instructing them to make copies in the name of "the sun god Ra". Antonio throws it away, calling it garbage and an affront to his Roman Catholicism, and writes off future misfortune that his beliefs will not be shattered.
- An episode of The Facts of Life had the character of Tootie sending a chain letter and the recipients receiving bad luck when they broke the chain.
- The comic strip Calvin & Hobbes had Calvin receiving a chain letter saying that a man who broke the chain went bald and a man who made copies for others got a promotion. Hobbes claims it is for "superstitious nincompoops" and recommends Calvin dispose of the chain letter, at which point Calvin reads the following line aloud: "... and a dumb kid like you listened to a friend and got run over by a cement mixer."
- In several strips of the comic series Peanuts, Charlie Brown receives a chain letter and agonizes over what to do with it.
- In the Mary Tyler Moore Show episode "Don't Break the Chain," Mary Richards is pressured into taking part in a scam chain letter by her boss, who is convinced that the letter is legitimate.
- In the Andy Griffith Show episode "The Lucky Letter," Barney doesn't forward a chain letter and is the victim of continuing misfortune.
- In an episode of Ghost Whisperer, a chain message from "Sally Stitch" spreads across Grandview, and Melinda believes a ghost is responsible for attacking those who do not comply with the message terms.
- Light Yagami, the protagonist of the manga and anime Death Note initially disregards the Death Note as a chain letter.
- Gratis Internet
- Jessica Mydek hoax letter
- Mail and wire fraud
- Make money fast
- Mon cher Mustapha letter – a chain letter used as a form of black propaganda
- Multi-level marketing
- Virus hoax
- Faxlore – distribution of chain-letters or similar material by fax machine
- The U.S. Postal Inspection Service cites Ok 18 USC 1302 when it asserts the illegality of chain letters:
Chain letters are illegal if they request money or other items of value and promise a substantial return to the participants, pursuant to Title 18, United States Code, Section 1302, the Postal Lottery Statute.]
- VanArsdale, Daniel W. (2002) . "Chain Letter Evolution". Retrieved 2006-08-21.
- Mikkelson, Barbara; David Mikkelson. "Thousand Dollar Bill". Urban Legends Reference Pages. Retrieved 2008-03-24.
- Mikkelson, Barbara; David Mikkelson. "A Boy Scout Outing". Urban Legends Reference Pages. Retrieved 2008-08-06.
- Mikkelson, Barbara; David Mikkelson. "Petition to Ban Religious Broadcasting". Urban Legends Reference Pages. Retrieved 2008-08-06.
- Newton, Michael (2004). The encyclopedia of high-tech crime and crime-fighting. pp.144.
- "Thousands fall for hotmail prank". BBC News. 8 March 2006. Retrieved 2008-05-27.
- "MySpace Ghost of Murdered Teen". snopes.com. Retrieved 2011-11-22.
- "Peanuts by Charles Schulz". GoComics. Universal Uclick. Retrieved 2015-07-13.
- Dan Squier. The Truth About Chain Letters, 1990, Premier Publishers, ISBN 0-915665-21-2
- Athena Dean. All That Glitters is Not Gold: Breaking Free From the Sweet Deceit of MLM, 1998, Winepress Publishing, ISBN 1-57921-134-8
- James Walsh. You Can't Cheat An Honest Man: How Ponzi Schemes & Pyramid Frauds Work, Merritt Publishing, ISBN 1-56343-169-6
- Gary Tartaglia. Shattered Dreams: How To Avoid Costly Mistakes In Multi-level Marketing, 1985, Targeted Communications, ISBN 0-9614404-0-6
- Stephen Butterfield. Amway: The Cult of Free Enterprise, 1985, South End Press, ISBN 0-89608-253-9
- John Scarne. Complete Guide to Gambling, Fully Revised, Expanded, Updated edition. Fireside, 1986, ISBN 0-671-63063-6
- A discussion of the history and various types of chain letters (from Snopes.com)
- An example of a "Send-a-dime" letter
- Break the chain
- Chain Letters at DMOZ
- Chain Letter Evolution, Daniel W. VanArsdale. A historical analysis, including an archive of actual letters.
- Pay the Thought Forward
- What's wrong with chain letters?