Bill Gates is a very, very rich man. Perhaps wealthier than many of us could imagine, but even with all of his money, not even Bill Gates could afford to give everyone on the net a share of his fortune. Yet that's exactly what a hoax that's been circulating the net for decades (well, in net-time) would have people believe.
And amazingly, they believe it.
Here's the original e-mail:
Date Captured: Dawn of Time
Subject: FW: Must Read!!!! Bill Gates (fwd)
Hello everybody, My name is Bill Gates. I have just written up an e-mail tracing program that traces everyone to whom this message is forwarded to. I am experimenting with this and I need your help. Forward this to everyone you know and if it reaches 1000 people everyone on the list will receive $1000 at my expense. Enjoy.
And as the years rolled on this original hoax has inspired dozens of imitators. It's the granddaddy of the "forward this e-mail to receive free stuff" hoaxes, including free cases of Coca-cola, money to save sick kids, and Applebee's gift certificates or AOL, Intel and Microsoft colluding to give you free money.
Unfortunately for those for whom hope springs eternal, Bill Gates isn't giving away money for forwarding emails. A quick visit to the home pages for Microsoft and the Gates Foundation reveals no mention of Bill's giveaway, and surely a man with such terrible public relations as his would most definitely want to promote the fact that he was giving away billions. There have also been stories on the Microsoft Web site debunking this hoax and its various offspring (although unfortunately, those links are now defunct).
The nail on the coffin for this, and all the other hoaxes that it gave rise to, is this: e-mail tracking programs don't exist. Every single one of these e-mail arrives as a simple, plaintext e-mail without a single line of program code included in it. While I've seen some e-mails that tries to encourage "viral market" by getting people to forward e-mail, every single one has some mechanism for getting people to do something built in -- for example a link to a Web page. The only thing that comes close to this concept is Carnivore, which is a program developed by the FBI and installed on e-mail servers at Internet Service Providers, but even that program is design to scan e-mail for certain words, not track e-mail and give people tax refunds.
But if you don't believe me, go ahead ... forward the e-mail. You'll definitely earn something, but unfortunately for you, it'll be the scorn of your friends and family annoyed by this undying hoax.
You can find plenty of sites on the net that debunk this hoax. Here are a few of them: