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Junk e-mail is bad enough, but unwanted virus is more than dull

February 1, 2001 

One of my favorite people — a reliable and intelligent woman with degrees in science -- sent me an e-mail this week that I wanted to ignore, but couldn't quite.

"Dear Friends," it began. "This message is on the level and terribly important. This is an alert about a virus that affects your body, not your hard drive."

It went on to detail the devastating impact of the so-called Klingerman virus, a disease that appears in a blue envelope mailed seemly randomly to homes. Each large envelope is imprinted with the words, "A Gift for You From the Klingerman Foundation."

Inside the enticing envelope, the hapless recipient finds a small sponge sealed in plastic. Open it and you may be instantly infected with the Klingerman virus, a strain "never previously encountered" by health officials.

The e-mail also mentions 23 "confirmed cases" of viral attack.

Perhaps the badge of authenticity — besides the name of a Florida police investigator and mentions of the federal Centers for Disease Control -- was its signature: It concludes with the name and phone number of an employee at the Yale-New Haven Hospital in New Haven, Conn.

It came from a trusted friend, too, with a skeptical and scientific bent.

Yet to me the virus sounded like a Woody Allen invention — a disease that arrives in the mail, like a prize from Publishers Clearing House. And it bore earmarks of the classic urban legend, cleverly playing on contemporary fears, inciting fear, and urging that it be passed on to protect others.

The virus seemed so clever. In one blue envelope might be found a toxic combination of modern worries: junk-mail dread and virus paranoia.

We are attacked by junk mail every day, in our e-mail boxes and at home. Who hasn't opened an envelope promising a spurious, free luxury vacation? Who hasn't been deceived by the "You've won!" come-on or the "gift for you" banner?

The anticipation, the hope, the eventual proof of deception and disappointment — these are everyday dramas as we open our mail.

The free trip doesn't include air fare. The "gift" are mailing labels that make you feel guilty if you don't immediately write a check to the soliciting charity.

And viruses are everywhere. Why not Klingerman's?

Here's why: The phone number — once indeed the number of a hapless secretary who received the deadly Klingerman e-mail — now leads to a recorded message that reveals the Klingerman virus e-mail "has been determined to be a hoax."

The national Centers for Disease Control, which posted its first Klingerman disclaimer in May 2000, updated it recently on Jan. 10, in response to the Yale hospital outbreak. A Centers for Disease Control employee said: "We're no longer answering questions about the e-mail."

"There is no Klingerman virus," the centers' Web site notes. Well, perhaps not. But the virus has claimed its victims.

That poor secretary who passed along the e-mail, and unwittingly gave a two-year-old joke new life and new credibility last fall — she's a corporate pariah.

"She broke one of our rules here, by sending personal e-mail from the hospital," said Jan Taylor, a Yale-New Haven Hospital spokesperson..

Perhaps there is no virus then, but surely we might all adopt the Klingerman Rule: If you must spread an urban legend, beware of using your company e-mail.

Laura Berman,

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