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A chain letter or the more modern form the chain email is a form of superstition or scam wherein people are convinced that they need to copy, forward, or pass on a letter or email or else they will either suffer bad consequences or miss out on a reward. There are various versions, some resembling a pyramid scheme and others more vaguely promising good or bad luck depending on whether instructions are followed.
More generally, forwarding by mail, fax, email, social media, or communications apps (such as WhatsApp) is a common way of spreading urban legends and other rumors, some harmless but others with very serious consequences.
There is no definitive first chain letter, and things with similar characteristics appear almost as old as organized postal services, if not older. One early sort contained religious messages that promised blessings if you passed them on. This type is known as Himmelsbrief (messages supposedly created by God, angels or other divine authorities), but similar letters are known from several religions including Judaism and Islam as well as Christianity. As with other types of memetic transmission, those messages which encouraged propagation would spread and less successful examples would die out, and people often edit the messages to make them more or less enticing to forward, so they are an example of evolution in action.
The oldest known example which explicitly instructed the reader to forward it and create a chain is often said to have been sent in 1888 (according to chain letter historian Daniel W. VanArsdale). Following such examples, in the early 20th century there was a craze for letters that promised good fortune if they were forwarded.
The next big step was to ask for money, at which point it moves from superstition to financial fraud. The first known example is the Send-A-Dime letter of 1935. This appears to have derived from an earlier luck-based letter known as the Hyatt Letter after folklorist Henry Hyatt. The classic Send-A-Dime letter reads in part:
This chain was started in the hope of bringing you prosperity. Within three days make five copies of this letter leaving off the top name and address and adding your own name and address at the bottom and mail to five of your friends to whom you wish prosperity to come.
In omitting the top name, send that person ten cents as a charity donation. In turn, when your name reaches the top of the list you will receive 15,625 letters with donations amounting to $1,562.50.
Is this worth ten cents to you? Have the faith your friends had and this chain will not be broken.
This appears to have begun in March or April 1935, with press reports in Denver on April 29 reporting that mail volumes in the city had tripled as a result of the craze; in May, newspapers were already reporting the fad was over, while in August the postmaster in Denver reported there were 100,000 undelivered letters containing $3000 of coins and dollar bills.
The classic pyramid chain letter scheme invites people to return a sum of money to the sender (and possibly other people further back in the chain) and suggests they forward it to other people, asking to receive money from them. A minimal example is something like this made-up message:
Send $10 to me, pick 10 people and send each of them this message.
If you want to make more money you can get more complex:
Send $10 to each of the ten people on the list, then score off the top name of the list, add your name to the bottom, and forward it to everybody you know.
The theory is that you will return a small amount of money to the people who sent the message but as long as you forward it to lots of people, they will in total send you a larger sum of money and you will get rich. This fails to work due to the fact that most people will only reply to a finite number of senders (generally less than or equal to 1) while the scheme requires an infinite number of gullible marks to ensure everybody further up the chain makes money. More specifically, if someone in your circle of family/friends has sent you the letter, they've probably sent it to most/all your family/friends already, so who else are you going to find to pay you?
Alternatively or additionally, it is common for messages to promise bad luck if you break the chain. Compliance with messages is more likely if it requires less effort, so even people who don't really believe in luck may forward a letter if it requires little effort. This is particularly likely if it's a choice between a small chance of great negatives (calamities from breaking the chain) vs the small negative cost of having to forward a message. This to some extent resembles Pascal's wager. However, it follows that one way of discouraging chain messages is to increase the cost of forwarding them, for instance by yelling at anyone who sends you one or taking up hours of their time with a tedious explanation of how stupid they are.
Such a chain appears to cause little harm (other than getting shouted at for being a superstitious fool). However they can be used to harvest postal or email addresses for fraudulent purposes, be the precursor to other more serious frauds (if you respond to a luck chain letter then you may be a good target for money chain letters), or even cause psychological distress.
As distribution mechanism
Without promises of good luck or money, forwarded messages are used to distribute other material. They are a common message of transmission of urban legends. The price of stamps and other forms of communication (telegraph, fax, etc) formerly discouraged distribution, but if people were able to take advantage of free resources at their office they could proliferate. This led to the phenomenon of faxlore, messages sent via facsimile machine, and later to endlessly forwarded emails. The most recent instance of this is the proliferation of rumors via group chats on applications such as WhatsApp. All these methods are often used to spread urban legends, in recent years ranging from disinformation around the Grenfell Tower fire to the use of WhatsApp to spread false rumors responsible for genocide in Myanmar.
There are other similar scams or false claims, such as claims that if people forward an email they will be rewarded by an email company. One example is:
Netscape and AOL have recently merged to form the largest internet company in the world. In an effort to remain at pace with this giant, Microsoft has introduced a new email tracking system as a way to keep Internet Explorer as the most popular browser on the market.
This email is a beta test of the new software and Microsoft has generously offered to compensate those who participate in the testing process. For each person you send this email to, you will be given $5. For every person they give it to, you will be given an additional $3. For every person they send it to you will receive $1.
This kind of scheme may or may not be technically possible (Microsoft may be able to track emails sent via its own email system, but can't track mail sent via other systems) but to date, every instance seems to have been fictional.
Money-based chains are illegal in the USA. Other forms of chain and other jurisdictions will vary.
- Chain Letter Evolution, Daniel W. VanArsdale, 1998-2016
- Chain Letters, Snopes, 27 September 2009
- The Origin of Money Chain Letters, Daniel W. VanArsdale, 2014
- The power of magical thinking: Why superstitions are hard to shake, University of Chicago Booth School of Business, Nov 9, 2015,
- How do superstitions affect our psychology and well-being?, Medical News Today
- UN says Facebook is accelerating ethnic violence in Myanmar, TechCrunch, Mar 13, 2018,
- Make $$ "Bill Gates Fortune" Hoax, Easykey