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What is a Chain Letter?

Chain letters began as regular letters through the post office, but are now typically sent via email or social networking sites.
The goal of a chain letter is to get its recipient to continue the chain and send it to other people.
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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 18 July 2014
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A chain letter is a type of letter sent to numerous people. It may contain a story about luck, friendship, or may entice the person to send money. The goal of the chain letter is to keep the chain going by asking the recipients to copy the letter and send it onto other people, usually a fixed number. Another goal of the chain letter may be to purposefully gain money from others in a fraudulent fashion. Often there are ominous threats or curses for breaking the continuity of the chain letter. For example: “If you do not send this chain letter to five other people, you will have bad luck for a year.”

Sometimes the chain letter is used specifically for illegal purposes. Attempts to get people to send money to the first person listed at the top of the chain is an illegal pyramid scheme. The letter usually promises that the recipient will also become rich through this process. This is seldom the case, and sending these types of chain letters is illegal in the US. They are merely scams and one violates many laws by employing them, and by involving the post office in the process.

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The most common type of chain letter today is the email chain letter. These can seem harmless, might include a personality quiz, a brief illuminating story, or some other “innocent” message. The insidious aspect of the email chain letter is that people are then enjoined at the bottom of the email to forward the email on to other people, often with promises of good fortune or threats for breaking the chain. Such chains might also contain attachments with worms or viruses, so it's best to ignore them, and not open attachments.

Many email providers strictly prohibit chain letters and can ban users who send them. It’s also considered extremely poor Internet etiquette or “netiquette” to forward chain letters onto friends, acquaintances, family or business associates. This is often a mistake of new Internet users who don’t realize chain letters are inappropriate material to forward.

If one really enjoys the contents of the chain letter, like a personality quiz, a joke or a story, one can simply copy that aspect of the chain letter into mailings to friends who one feels will also enjoy it. Be certain to not include references to the sender needing to pass the material onto other people. Bear in mind that not all material is going to be enjoyed by others, and any material, whether chain letter or not, may simply crowd another person’s mailbox and prove annoying. Such material should never be sent to co-workers or to people with whom you only have a chance acquaintance.

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