- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 3, 2003

Many spammers have found ways to profit from sending unsolicited e-mail without selling a single product, using a range of tactics from simple banner ads to outright deception and identity theft.

It has long been thought that spammers made money only because people bought the products advertised in e-mails, like pornography or weight-loss plans. Now antispam advocates are warning consumers against even replying to spam or going to sites advertised in e-mail, because it could put more money in spammers’ pockets.

“I really don’t believe [spam] is about selling things,” said Joe St. Sauver, a director at the Computing Center at the University of Oregon, who has worked with the state attorney general to craft antispam legislation. “It’d be nice if that were true, but that’s not the case anymore.”

Online industry observers say many spammers make money as long as people visit their Web sites. In such cases, spammers get revenue from banner advertisements displayed on those sites. Web site operators receive a fee from the advertiser for every user that visits the site, and often use unsolicited e-mail ads to attract Web users there. The recipient of the e-mail does not need to register at the site or pay any money.

Some spammers also use banner ads on Web sites designed to allow people to opt out of future e-mails. For instance, a spammer may include in an e-mail a link titled “Click Here to Opt Out of Future E-mails.” But most often the opt-out requests are not honored and spammers simply lure e-mail recipients there to collect banner ad revenue, Mr. St. Sauver and others said.

Spam is generally considered any unsolicited commercial e-mail. Most of it is either deceptive, pornographic, or both, and costs businesses billions of dollars a year in services and lost productivity.

Other ways spammers have profited from spam without selling any products include:

• Offering e-mail recipients “free pornography” if they download a software program. The program often provides the pornography, but only after the user’s computer dials a 1-900 number to an overseas location, racking up hundreds of dollars in phone charges.

• “Pump and dump” stock schemes, in which a spammer sends e-mails touting a certain stock and encourages people to buy it. The stock’s value goes up, and spammers sell it at a profit.

• Accepting payment for an item without sending it. Spammers bet that someone buying Viagra or pills for the enlargement of body parts would be too embarrassed to call the police or Better Business Bureau.

It is not clear how much spammers profit from these tactics, but it is likely only a fraction of the millions of dollars they pull in each year, antispam advocates said.

Some observers of spam trends downplayed the severity of these tactics.

“We don’t really think that’s significant, to tell you the truth,” said Sara Radicati, president of the Radicati Group, a consulting and research firm that tracks e-mail trends. “I doubt that spammers really get much money for it.”

More troublesome, Ms. Radicati said, are the spammers who hijack consumers’ identities using e-mail and phony Web sites in a effort to make money.

The Federal Trade Commission and the FBI in July issued a warning to consumers to look out for “phisher” sites, which are made to look like an official Web site from a company requesting personal information.

Typically, an e-mail user receives a message with a link to such a site, where he is asked to enter credit-card, social security and personal identification numbers. The FTC and FBI said that incidents with “phisher” sites are increasing, and that they settled a case with a teenager in Los Angeles who had gone on a shopping spree using stolen information.

Antispam groups advise against replying to any unsolicited commercial e-mail, or clicking on any links. They suggest deleting all e-mails or forwarding them to the FTC’s spam database, at uce@ftc.gov.

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