- The Washington Times - Monday, October 13, 2003

Junk e-mail selling “spy software” spiked in late September right after Microsoft announced it was shutting down chat rooms that may have been infiltrated by pedophiles.

Spy software, also called “spyware,” secretly gathers information on an individual’s online activity, and might be useful for parents monitoring their children.

Companies monitoring unsolicited e-mail, or spam, said the campaign showed that some online marketers have become adept at exploiting news events.

These companies say the most relentless of these marketers, known as spammers, routinely increase e-mail campaigns to capitalize on consumer fears, and can send out millions of e-mails within hours of a news report.

“This is very typical of what spammers do,” said Francois Lavaste, a vice president with Brightmail, one of the world’s largest spam-filtering companies. “Clearly, spammers are human beings, and they are going to try to get the most investment for their time.”

In late September, antispam companies noticed a spike in ads selling spyware. The crush of ads followed Microsoft’s Sept. 24 announcement that it was shutting down many of its online chat rooms out of concern that they were attracting pedophiles.

Clearswift, a British company that provides e-mail security software, said 15 percent of all spam sent a day after the announcement contained the subject line “MONITOR your Kids on the Internet with Spy Software.”

“For that to happen the next day, in that volume, is quite remarkable,” said Alyn Hockey, Clearswift’s director of research.

Brightmail also noted an increase in political-oriented spam coinciding with California’s gubernatorial recall election and news related to Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Brightmail said it had never tracked political spam until last month, when 3 percent of all unwanted e-mail featured politically oriented subject lines.

Subject lines like “Arnold for Governator” and “Terminator for Governor” were particularly common in the weeks leading up to the recall election, though the e-mails sold items unrelated to the California election.

Brightmail also reported spam from unofficial support camps for Sen. Joe Lieberman, Connecticut Democrat, seeking his party’s nomination for president, and Arianna Huffington, an independent who ran for California governor before withdrawing from the race.

Antispam companies also said they have seen increases in ads for antivirus software coinciding with news of computer viruses or worms. And, ironically, ads for antispam software become more common during periods where spam is in the news.

Analysts say the ads for spyware are troubling, because many versions of the software have been hijacked by hackers and virus writers, who then steal personal information from computer users.

“I’m not sure if spammers themselves are necessarily interested in that, but it does seem to indicate some sort of collusion,” Mr. Hockey said. “I’ve never seen one as prolific as this [spam campaign]. It really catches your eye because of the sheer volume.”

Also, many Internet security analysts believe that hackers and spammers have worked together to write some of the most damaging viruses and worms, including the SoBig.F virus that infected millions of computers in August.

Analysts said spammers are able to boost the output of certain ads because most of them are not new. Spyware ads, for instance, have existed for years, and many times the products being advertised either no longer exist or have been replaced by newer versions.

But spammers can still benefit from sending the messages, because even a 1 percent response rate will result in a profit.

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