April 29, 2003 9:37 AM PDT

This just in: Spammers fib

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A new Federal Trade Commission study on spam reaches a conclusion that shouldn't surprise anyone with an in-box: Most spammers lie.

Whether disguising who they are, providing misleading subject lines, or offering false deals that are too good to be true, spammers are more likely to mislead recipients than to tell the truth about their offers, the study found.

The FTC's study, False Claims in Spam, which analyzed 1,000 pieces of unsolicited commercial e-mail gleaned from FTC databases and government officials' in-boxes, found that 66 percent of spam contains some type of fraudulent claim.

"Spam is...a big fraud problem, one that really needs a law enforcement response, aggressively and at all levels," said Eileen Harrington, associate director of the consumer protection marketing practices division at the FTC.

The report comes the day before the FTC kicks off a three-day forum aimed at exploring solutions to spam. Harrington said spam puts the entire e-mail system at risk, because the costs for fighting spam-related fraud and recouping lost productivity continue to rise.

"E-mail as a really useful medium of communication for commercial purposes, and for all (other) purposes, could be run into the ground," Harrington said. "It's been hijacked."

The FTC study found that nearly all spam pitching business opportunities contained some type of claim that appeared to be fraudulent, while half of all health-related spam was misleading.

The study also looked at the most common deception tactics. Placing false claims in the subject line of messages, spammers were found to be likely to use language that was completely unrelated to the message content. Porn spammers were found to be especially fond of this tactic, inducing people to unexpectedly face an explicit image upon opening a seemingly ordinary message.

Examining the "from" line, researchers found that spammers' favorite tactics involved misleading recipients into thinking that they had a personal relationship, often by using just a first name.

The FTC also analyzed allegedly false claims in the text message. About 40 percent of the e-mail examined contained suspicious wording, such as a promise to "lose weight while you sleep."

FTC officials warned that their results could not necessarily be extrapolated across all in-boxes, but that the data was another indication that the spam problem is getting worse.

Messages forwarded to its spam-reporting in-box have skyrocketed in recent years. These days, the FTC receives about 130,000 forwarded spam messages a day at uce@ftc.gov, the agency's special e-mail address that's monitored by agency workers who fight unsolicited bulk messages. Two years ago, that in-box received just 10,000 messages a day.

In plans to step up its fight against spam, the FTC says it's planning on going after marketers who take over other people's e-mail addresses to send spam.

Spam prevention seems to be all the rage this week in anticipation of the forum.

On Monday, America Online, Yahoo and Microsoft said they would pool their resources to focus on technical measures to fight spam. Harrington said the proposal sounded like it was on the right track, but she wanted more details.

"We applaud their initiative on this, but we want to know how it would really work," she said.

The FTC forum runs from Wednesday through Friday in Washington, D.C.

 

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