The other day Beth Burdett, one of my colleagues in the University of Utah English department, came into my office to show me a chain letter she had received in the mail.

The anonymous duplicated letter began, "Kiss someone you love when you get this letter and make magic." It promised the recipient good luck if he or she would send copies of the letter to 20 friends.Beth asked what I thought her chances were of improving her luck via the letter. I puckered up as nicely as I could and said, "You'll never know, Beth, unless you try."

"Now cut that out," Beth replied, "and tell me about chain letters. Are they folklore?"

I said they must be, since not long before I had written a column about "Pyramid Chain Letters" - the ones that ask the recipient to send a recipe, a postcard or even a trout fly to the first person on a list and then to circulate the same letter to six other people with one's own name added at the bottom.

The pyramid effect refers to the fact that the number of letters quickly multiplies, supposedly bringing the sender hundreds of similar items sent by those who got the letters.

The chain letter Burdett had received was the "good luck" type, which promises a positive result of some kind simply for compliance, and hints that bad luck will follow if you fail to send out the copies. Dozens of variations of these letters have circulated for decades, always containing verbal similarities, suggesting that they may have once stemmed from a single source.

For example, the heading "Kiss someone you love" may be replaced by "With love all things are possible," or with a blessing or prayer that stresses God's love. The opening of the letter will state that the chain began either in England - or New England or the Netherlands - and has been around the world (invariably) nine times.

Usually 20 copies should be mailed within 96 hours of the letter's receipt; the good luck should follow in four (or six, or "a few") days.

It is interesting to compare the names of people mentioned in the letters. In Burdett's version, we read: "Constantine Dias received the chain in 1953. He asked his secretary to make 20 copies and send them out. A few days later he won a lottery of $2 million."

In other versions the last name of this person becomes "Dios," "Diaz," "Dino," "Disso" and even "Disco." The man called "Gene Welsch" in Burdett's version (who lost his wife - or his "life" - after he failed to circulate the letter) appears in others as a "General" named "Welsch," "Welch," "Walsh," "Wasch" or "Warlech." Most letters agree that this general lived in the Philippines when he got the chain letter.

The good luck chain letters always specify "Send no money," but list the specific amounts that participants and non-participants have gained or lost.

However, the dollar amounts vary widely, especially in the placement of their decimal points. In some letters "an RAF officer won $70,000," but in others he (or an "Air Force officer," or a "U.S. officer") gained 7 million bucks, or $70 million, or some completely different amount.

The oddest name in Beth Burdett's letter was "Saul Andrew McGruff," identified as "a missionary from South America" who wrote the original letter. This name echoes through other letters in forms such as "Saul (or "Paul") Anthony deCroff," "deGroup," "deCroop" or "deCrox." The name "Antoine de Sidi" or sometimes just "Saint Antoine" also appears as the author of the letter.

But I like the name "McGruff" best, because in the Postal Service pamphlets on postal crime prevention, the spokesdog who delivers the message is a tough-looking cartoon canine named "McGruff, the crime fighting dog."

I believe McGruff has infiltrated the good luck chain letter with the cover name "Saul Andrew." He's keeping his eyes and nose alerted to sniff out fraud if anyone should start asking people to send money or valuables.

If that happens, then the good luck chain letters would become not just a nuisance in your mail, but a federal offense. At that point, if I'm right, McGruff, the crime-fighting dog, will move in and put the bite on the crooks.