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What To Do When Your Friend’s E-mail Lies To You.

Let me put the matter bluntly: an awful lot of the e-mailed messages zipping around the Internet are lies — and too many are being sent on by gullible, lazy friends who ought to know better.

These falsehoods are multiplying like viruses as recipients forward them to their entire list of friends without making the slightest effort to verify what’s being claimed, often with cover messages saying something like, “You HAVE to read this!”

This cyber-sickness should stop. All it takes is a little bit of common sense and skepticism, some curiosity and a few keystrokes. Nailing these lies can even be fun.

Let’s start with one you may have seen already, a whopper that has been circulating for years. I’ll call it “Lying E-mail #1”

This little bit of mendacity claims that members of Congress don’t pay into Social Security and are covered by a pension system that costs them nothing and pays them full salary, plus cost-of-living adjustments, when they retire — all of which is pure bunk.

Lying E-mail #1: Social Security

SOCIAL SECURITY: This is worth reading. It is short and to the point.

Perhaps we are asking the wrong questions during election years.

Our Senators and Congresswomen do not pay into Social Security and, of course, they do not collect from it.

You see, Social Security benefits were not suitable for persons of their rare elevation in society. They felt they should have a special plan for themselves.

So, many years ago they voted in their own benefit plan. In more recent years, no congress person has

felt the need to change it. After all, it is a great plan. For all practical purposes their plan works like this:

When they retire, they continue to draw the same pay until they die. . . . .

Their cost for this excellent plan is $0.00. NADA….ZILCH…. This little perk they voted for themselves is free to them. You and I pick up the tab

for this plan. The funds for this fine retirement plan come directly from the General Funds; “OUR TAX DOLLARS AT WORK”! . . .

How many people can YOU send this to? Keep this going clear up thru the 2004 election!! We need to be heard.

I have received probably 100 copies of this from FactCheck.org readers asking, “Is this true?” Their suspicions were well founded.

Here’s how you can debunk this one, and others like it, yourself. Using my favorite search engine Google, type in some key words: “congressional pensions social security,” for example.

Instantly you should find articles from some excellent Web sites that specialize in checking out this kind of thing: One from Snopes.com calling the e-mail “false” another from About.com calling it “inaccurate” and a third from UrbanLegends.com that concludes that the average Congressperson is pretty much in the same boat as the average middle class US citizen .

By now you should begin to suspect that “Lying e-mail #1” is not entirely on the up-and-up. At this point you might be tempted to bounce this message back to whoever sent it to you with a demand that they apologize for wasting your time and spreading lies. And you wouldn’t be wrong to do so — I’ve found these three Web sites to be generally reliable in such matters.

But wait — what if these three sources are all wrong? Anybody can set up a Web site and say anything they want, true or false. If this is your first encounter with them you have no personal reason to trust them, and you will notice that they are secondary sources — they get their information from others. So, let’s drill down more deeply to see if we can find some factual bedrock.

In this case, the Snopes.com article and the About.com article both have provided a link to another article from CSPAN.org, a private, nonprofit organization with a reputation for dogged neutrality.

We’re getting closer to bedrock, but even this is a secondary source. The CSPAN article’s information comes from a report by the Congressional Research Service of the Library of Congress, the gold standard of research to which Members of Congress themselves turn for information.

The title of that report is “Retirement Benefits for Members of Congress,” so let’s go back to Google and type in “retirement benefits members congress.” And lo! Up pops the latest version of this report as posted on the Web site of the US Senate, verifying our earlier information. It is dated January of 2004, so it’s up to date. And it tells us, for example, that the best pension a member of congress can possibly get is 80% of salary, not full salary as the lying e-mail claims. And most get far less.

So, with a little bit of computer detective work we have conclusively debunked this particular e-mail. Technically, the Library of Congress report is also a secondary source, but it cites the specific statutes that govern congressional retirement benefits for anyone wishing to consult the primary source. You could pull up the actual language of the law here, if you wish, but making sense of legislative language can be tricky. For most of us the well-footnoted CRS report should do.

Not all lying e-mails will be quite so easy to debunk, but this example should teach us a few basic points about how to smell out these fakes.

Red Flag #1: First off, it was unsigned — there’s no way for a recipient to judge the reliability of the source, and no way for the person who drafted it to be held responsible, either. No wonder so many of FactCheck.org’s readers smelled a rat.

Red Flag #2: It contained no footnotes or specific references that could be checked out — such as the name of a law, or even a newspaper clipping. Where are these claims coming from? The e-mail doesn’t say, with good reason. It’s just made up.

Red Flag #3: It doesn’t pass the “common sense” test. Could Members of Congress be treating themselves so lavishly without major news organizations jumping on it? Not likely.

In fact, it was true 20 years ago that Members of Congress didn’t pay into Social Security, and their pension system back then was ridiculously generous (though never quite as opulent as the e-mail claims). And back then, I was writing about that for The Associated Press, one of many reporters who knew an outrageous story when we saw one. But the stories went away when Congress reformed the system a generation ago.

In our next “Special Report” we’ll take a look at another example — “Lying e-mail #2” — and give some more tips for doing your own debunking. Meanwhile, be skeptical of unverified, anonymous claims sent to you, even by well-meaning friends, and please think twice about sending on something you don’t personally know to be true.