- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 28, 2005

E-mail scams grew more sophisticated this year as spammers tried new ways to lure consumers into providing personal information for apparently legitimate business transactions, according to a report from America Online Inc.

Still abundant were more traditional annoyances, such as spam offering products to sculpt your body, improve sexual performance, perfect your diet and provide remarkably low mortgage rates.

AOL’s third annual Top 10 Spam List includes examples of Donald Trump and other celebrities trying to recruit Internet users, great deals on hot technology gadgets, and personalized correspondence appearing to come from an acquaintance who needs to collect a friend’s personal financial data.

“I’ve certainly seen some of those myself,” said Joe Wilcox, a technology analyst at JupiterResearch.

E-mail users should be aware that messaging providers, including AOL, view spam as “anything that looks to deceive people in one way or another,” which is not the same as what consumers might label “junk e-mail” from legitimate businesses trying to sell goods or services, Mr. Wilcox said.

Although generic product pitches dominated previous spam lists, attempts to trick e-mail users in the form of fake customer-driven transactions on everything from great deals on IPods to bogus shipment confirmations increased this year, AOL reported.

Some spam messages look like they come from Web sites and businesses with which consumers have done business, Mr. Wilcox said.

“Never open an attachment from an unfamiliar person,” he said, adding that his mother is an AOL user and he does not even click on attachments from her if they are part of a forwarded message.

“Any time anyone asks for your credit card number online when you already have an account, consider that to be a fraudulent spam mail,” Mr. Wilcox said.

AOL blocked more than 550 billion spam e-mails in 2005, up slightly from last year, but the volume of spam reaching in-boxes remained low compared to its height in late 2003 when the federal government got involved.

The Federal Trade Commission earlier this month issued its first assessment of the Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing Act of 2003, or the Can-Spam Act.

The report detailed advancements in combating spam, including enhanced filtering tools and increased marketing industry compliance.

But it found that problems remained, including more sophisticated spam that spread viruses and other malicious software, as well as internationally based messages clogging U.S. users’ in-boxes.

Consumers should continue remain wary of spam during next year, “because ultimately their personal identity is at stake,” said Charles Stiles, postmaster for Sterling, Va.-based AOL.

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