A piece of mail that enjoins its recipient to make a certain number of copies that will each be sent to a new addressee within a specified period. The number of copies is often between five and ten; the period of days is usually less than a week.

Chain letters may offer rewards for perpetuating the chain and sometimes offer threats if the chain is broken. The letters may offer luck, money, or other rewards. Chain letters are also used to circulate petitions, information, or requests for charity.

An example of a money-based chain letter: it arrives with a list of six names and addresses. You are instructed to make five copies of the letter and send a copy to five people of your acquaintance who are likely to continue the chain. When you make your copies, you remove the first name from the list and add your own name at the bottom. You also send one dollar to the first person on the list, the name that you removed. If all goes well, you will receive $15,625 in the mail, and it only cost you a dollar!

Chain letters that involve money, however, are illegal and unlikely to work.

What would happen if you never broke a chain letter?

Usually people worry about the opposite scenario- what will happen if they do break the chain letter. A typical chain letter details all the dreadful, heinous things that happen to those who receive the letter and dare to defy the vile chain letter gods and break the chain. Sometimes also enclosed are "actual handwritten endorsements" of the letter by famous celebrities, as if that somehow adds to the mystical quality of the thing!

In a weird kind of way, the consequences of not breaking a chain letter can be more disastrous and mind-boggling than going through with it. The letter's request is usually simple enough- make five copies of the letter and mail it to five friends. Sounds harmless enough, but consider this. If everyone complied with the request, the number of letters and people involved would snowball to enormous numbers in a surprisingly short time. It is what's informally called the "and they told two friends" phenomenon. It goes as follows: You send 5 letters to five people, and then those five people send 25 letters to 25 people, then they send 125 letters, then 625, and the progression continues to grow until after just 15 cycles of the chain, the number of people receiving the letter reaches an incredible 6,103,515,625 letters!

The volume of letters would quickly exceed the population of the world, and, as the process repeats itself, would continue to spiral to astronomical numbers as the idiots that started it begin to mail out a second round. Each individual would be sending out uncounted, never-ending letters, thus crippling the world's postal service and allowing little time to do anything but copy and mail letters. This will lead to the end of civilization and eventually mankind! No wonder these get-rich-quick schemes are so common and so illegal.

They're illegal if they request money or other items of value and promise a substantial return to the participants. Chain letters are a form of gambling, and sending them through the mail (or delivering them in person or by computer, but mailing money to participate) violates Title 18, United States Code, Section 1302, the Postal Lottery Statute. (Chain letters that ask for items of minor value, like picture postcards or recipes, may be mailed, since such items are not things of value within the meaning of the law.) (Source 2)

So the next time you get one of these letters, do yourself and your friends a favor, toss it in the garbage. You may suffer some personal misfortune, castration, the bullet of an assassin, and a little trip or two to total damnation, but its a small price to pay to save modern civilization.

Sources and sites of interest:
1. EFF Chain Letter Archive: http://www.eff.org/Net_culture/Folklore/Chain_letters/
2. United States Postal Service Website: http://www.usps.com/websites/depart/inspect/chainlet.htm
3. Rutgers University: http://www.cs.rutgers.edu/~watrous/chain-letters.html (Huge resource!)

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