The Federal Trade Commission says regulators are stepping up enforcement of that plague of spam filling your e-mail inbox, and launching undercover operations to put cyberhucksters out of business.
Federal regulators admit these efforts promise only to put a small dent in a growing deluge of junk e-mail, which is virtually cost-free to senders but costs consumers and businesses because it wastes time and requires businesses to upgrade computer equipment to handle the increased volume.
Brian Huseman, a Federal Trade Commission attorney, said spam is proliferating so fast, and becoming such an annoyance, consumers may soon not bother with their e-mail boxes and just let the messages accumulate unread.
"It's a huge problem to individuals and businesses, and a problem that will increase," Huseman said. Brightmail Inc., a San Francisco firm that sells e-mail filtering services to business, estimates 38 percent of the e-mail sent over the Internet today is spam, up from 8 percent last year.
The Federal Trade Commission Wednesday unveiled the results of a "Spam Harvest" it ran this year, setting up accounts that attracted spam, and running "stings" to ferret out fraudulent operations. The investigation resulted in warning letters to about 100 spammers, warning their messages were fraudulent or deceptive under the terms of federal trade laws.
Charges were brought against four spammers, including one who fraudulently used the logs of well-known financial institutions like Fannie Mae, Radian Bank and Prudential, to induce individuals to turn over sensitive personal financial information. In another case, a spammer was charged with fraud offering a service to remove unwanted e-mail.
Huseman said the federal agency has made it a priority to crack down on the get-rich-quick schemes and chain letters. While there is currently no federal law prohibiting unsolicited e-mail, the Federal Trade Commission has broad authority to investigate and prosecute cases of unfair and deceptive trade practices.
Oren Etzione, an associate professor of computer science at the University of Washington, predicts the amount of spam will only increase.
"I think we're in a war, and the spammers have fired the first billion shots," said Etzione. "The Internet is drowning in spam, and it stinks."
Etzione's suggestion is not just to delete the unwanted e-mail, but to fight back by following through on spam offers by visiting the spammers' Web sites. If enough people do that, it would saturate the spammer's system with requests and require the spammer to make costly upgrades of his equipment or service to get the customers he is trying to entice to his site.
Etzione said software could be written to have the computer do the work automatically, and drown the spammers' sites in messages. Just responding to the message with e-mails demanding to be taken off the e-mail list doesn't work because spammers often use phony addresses.
The Direct Marketing Association, the organization that represents telemarketers and mass mailing firms, said this month it is reversing its opposition to regulating spam in favor of federal regulations that would require e-mailers to include legitimate addresses on the e-mail messages that are sent, and provisions allowing recipients a way to get off a firm's e-mail list.
The association said it also wants federal regulations to include provisions overriding state laws adopted in more than a dozen states that threaten to take spammers to court if they don't stop.
Here are some suggestions from the Federal Trade Commission to help stay off junk e-mail lists, based on what agency investigators found running sting operations against deceptive and fraudulent spammers:
- If you are suffering under a deluge of spam, change your e-mail address.
- Mask your e-mail address in messages. Instead of using johndoe(at)myisp.com, use johndoe(at)spamway.myisp.com and tell the recipient to take the "spamway" out of any return message to get back to you.
- Set up two e-mail accounts - one for public posting, and one for personal messages. Spammers use spider programs that trawl the Web, searching out new e-mail addresses.
Use a separate screen name for online chat-rooms.
-Use a unique e-mail address that contains both numbers and letters. This would make it more difficult for programs that use computer-generated names to send messages at random.
- If you are purchasing online, use temporary accounts set up through Yahoo or Hotmail to avoid your real e-mail from being put on a permanent list.
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