Page last updated at 10:54 GMT, Friday, 21 November 2008

The battle against bogus e-mails

Frieda Springer Beck
Frieda Springer Beck was conned out of around US$300,000

Spammers must send out around 12.5 million unsolicited e-mail messages before someone takes the bait and responds, according to research by the University of California, Berkeley.

David Reid finds out that despite many inboxes filling up with bulk messages, the profit margins of malicious spammers are rather vulnerable.

Any threat to their operation can erode away their profits, with 350 million junk e-mails a month earning just over $100 (£68) a day for those behind them.

"Fight for rights"

Microsoft is co-ordinating the latest attack on spammers by bringing together a coalition of companies, including Western Union and the African Development Bank, to fight lottery scams.

"Lottery scams in particular are e-mails or spam e-mails that tell you that you've won the lottery, and here's this huge amount of money and all you need to do is to pay these taxes up front or something like that in order to get your winnings," said Tim Cranton, the associate general counsel for Microsoft.

However, this type of scam predates the internet - one early victim was Frieda Springer Beck who lost about $300,000 after being contacted by post.

Teen uses a computer
Younger users are being targeted on social network sites

She was determined to get her money back and urged other victims not to be too embarrassed to report it to the police.

"When I wanted to report my case - at this time it was 1993 - people laughed about me.

"To all the victims I want to appeal: don't stop. If you don't fight for your rights, you give the other side the message that what they are doing - cheating - is the right thing," she said.

Hidden messages

Mr Cranton, who leads Microsoft's worldwide internet safety enforcement programmes, said it was aiming to help victims who came forward.

"What we've actually done is set up over a hundred thousand e-mail accounts that are Microsoft accounts that just collect spam e-mail.

"So if we get a report victim saying, 'You know I was a victim of this type of lottery scam', we can look back through those e-mail accounts that we've collected.

"Then hopefully across the industry law enforcement is then in a position to piece everything together", he told Click at the 6th German Anti-Spam Summit.

Microsoft's anti-scam scheme is only one part of a wider internet industry war on spam, but it seems neither side is winning.

Some e-mail filters work, but when messages are hidden in a PDF or even an MP3 file, only software that filters for mass mailing is effective.

Tim Cranton from Microsoft
Microsoft has brought together a coalition of firms to fight spam

Controlled network

But spam may not be in an e-mail at all, because spammers are also targeting younger users on social networking websites.

"They are not as wise in the ways of protecting themselves against phishing and spam attacks," said Stuart Paton from Cloudmark.

"You are basically posting the spam messages that you already see in e-mail onto things like comments on blogs on the websites, on wall-posts," he added.

Spammers are equally ingenious at infecting computers to form a botnet, when machines are compromised by an e-mail bearing a virus as an attachment or by an online worm, to then support cyber crimes.

Malicious code also lurks in crowded places on the internet to infect visitors.

"They hack into the website to make sure the malicious code is being spread in a very short time… a lot of people that surf on the website will then be infected and become part of a controlled network," said Robert Rothe from the German security firm Eleven.

A few safety tips can go a long way in making users safer: keep your e-mail address to yourself, do not click on sites or open mail you are unsure about. Plus, remember if something sounds too good to be true, it is.

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit

banner watch listen bbc sport Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific