Spammers prey on fears

In spite of all that's changed since September 11, isn't it nice to know that there's at least one constant? No matter what the situation, we can count on spammers to try and take advantage of us.

          In spite of all that's changed since September 11, isn't it nice to know that there's at least one constant? No matter what the situation, we can count on spammers to try and take advantage of us.

          InfoWorld (US) readers have been both appalled and amazed by how quickly and crassly spammers have jumped on the anti-terrorism bandwagon. "I find it absolutely revolting that these scumbuckets wrap themselves in the flag like this," wrote one reader after receiving an unsolicited email ad for a variety of cheap red-white-and-blue jewellry. "It just goes to show that the old adage about patriotism being the refuge of scoundrels is still true."

          Patriotism is just one of the emotions spammers have tried to tap for their spam pitches in recent weeks. Readers have forwarded a broad array of junk messages whose senders appeal to the recipient's compassion for victims of the terrorist acts, fears of falling victim oneself, and/or prejudices against religious or ethnic groups.

          Within 24 hours of the attacks on the World Trade Centre, a number of bulk email houses were sending out messages that implied (falsely, of course) that they were associated with the The American National Red Cross, United Way of America, or other legitimate charities. They used those organisations to give cover to unsolicited promotions of their spamming services. In urging everyone to donate blood and money for relief efforts, most at least gave real phone numbers and URLs for the charities, but several emailers substituted phoney sites of their own where recipients were led to believe they were donating to the real charities.

          The terrorist acts have helped create a variety of new market niches for spammers to exploit along with their standard fare of porn-site promotions and get-rich schemes. Patriotic goods of all kinds appear to be the most popular, judging by the number of unsolicited emails selling American flags, USA lapel pins, T-shirts, and so on. The purveyors of these goods generally promise to donate a portion of the proceeds to one of the relief funds. And who knows, a few may even mean it, but that's highly unlikely. In fact, because spammers know how difficult such a thing is to track down, some don't bother to send any goods at all -- they just pocket any money you send and move on.

          Another potentially lucrative market exploited by spammers is anti-terrorism aids, particularly anthrax remedies and screening tools. Virtually all of the bulk email promotions for sites that claim to sell Viagra and other prescription drugs are now also advertising Cipro and other chemicals for anthrax treatment. Why anyone worried about anthrax exposure would trust an unknown spammer to send them chemicals through the mail is beyond me.

          In the view of some spammers, American patriotism and hatred for other ethnic groups are virtually the same thing. One very common email suggests that you should "show the world you're proud to be an America" by displaying your "Nuke Afghanistan" bumper sticker. Others hawk sweatshirts with crude anti-Islamic obscenities. A bit more amusing is the bin Laden dartboard -- or at least it would be if the spammer didn't require purchasers to supply name, address, email address, and telephone number. It serves to remind us that the one thing you can be sure you'll get, should you be foolish enough to buy anything from a spammer, is the inclusion of your contact information on a lot more sucker lists.

          Email hucksters have come up with many terrorism-related variations on their standard tricks to promote wares or cull active email addresses for future mailings. Several circulated petitions advocated strong measures that recipients were asked to forward to family and friends and then have returned to the sender so they could be put "into the hands of the president" or other unlikely purpose. A purported jokes website claimed it would donate half the profits it made from new subscribers to victims and their families. A psychic offered a free reading to those in need of knowledge about the uncertain future.

          Perhaps the most outrageous spam of all was sent out by a bulk email house just a few days after the September 11 attacks. Along with the typical hypocritical plea for donations to the Red Cross, the message went on at great length to equate anti-spammers with terrorists.

          "Anti-spammers are terrorists at heart," it said, "and attack website and email accounts of companies to bring their products and services to the general public ... because they are anti-American," the message read in part. "When you make yourself known to be an 'anti-bulk-emailer,' you align yourself with hackers, terrorists, and un-American groups."

          Silly as that may be, one reader pointed out a disquieting thing about this message and others sent out by the same bulk email house. At the bottom of each message is some vaguely threatening language about the evils that will befall anyone who tries to interfere with the spamming service's customers, plus links for a "legal agreement" and a "privacy policy." "These are empty links on the messages I've received, but what if they weren't?" the reader mused. "I certainly wouldn't want to go to their website to read them. But could a spammer claim I'm subject to an agreement they post on their sites, just like all the other e-businesses do?"

          An interesting question. Keep it in mind next week when we look at another consequence of the events of September 11.

          Inundated by huckster spam? Contact InfoWorld's reader advocate, Ed Foster, at gripe@infoworld.com or voice your opinion in our Gripe Line Forum.

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