A fake chain letter sent out via email back in October 1999 promising forwarders a free Ericsson mobile phone is still in circulation more than two years later. But why Ericsson has never traced its originator remains a mystery.

The email which read: "If you forward [this] to 20 people, you will receive a brand new Ericsson R320 WAP-Phone", was purportedly sent by an Ericsson employee named Anna Swelund.

Within days Ericsson's website was condemning the email, telling visitors it was fake and assuring them that its "legal and IT departments will trace the person who initiated the chain letter".

It appears almost certain that Ericsson never did catch the perpetrator, but the company doesn't want to admit it.

"We cannot comment on our processes for investigating such incidents," said Paula Wagstaff, Ericsson's less-than-helpful communications directors.

Ericsson is being curiously tight-lipped about whether, more than two years on, the perpetrator was ever found but PC Advisor is pretty sure that, had the culprit been traced, the company would be only too happy to tell us about it.

Unfortunately, Ericsson is under no obligation to fulfil its 'promise', according to Paul Stevens, partner and IT legal expert at Olswang Solicitors.

"It would be almost impossible to trace the perpetrator of such a crime, unless you were part of the FBI," said Stevens. "Ericsson just doesn't have the power."

As with senders of hoax virus emails, someone sending out fake email chain letters is likely to face charges of malicious falsehood. But in both cases the chances of tracing them is slim to none.

Far from damaging the mobile phone company's reputation, from a marketing point of view this email 'campaign' may have been a bonus for Ericsson.

"A marketing campaign which has reached all corners of the world can't be bad," said Tom Hanson of Marketing Ventures.

"From this a company could determine which people are online, gather thousands of email addresses and, more importantly, realise what this sort of campaign, especially if it has been successful, could do for their company," Hanson added.

In fact, the only people who would have been negatively affected by such a ploy are the people that responded to the email.

"Unfortunately, there's nothing anyone can do for those people who complied with the email, " said Olswang's Stevens. "It's just a nasty joke."