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Tuesday, July 14, 1998 Published at 19:42 GMT 20:42 UK


The Great Spam Scams

Spam is inundating Internet users with unsolicited offers

Junk e-mail is not only slowing the Internet and causing a nuisance but is also, in many cases, fraudulent, according to America's Federal Trade Commission.

The FTC released a "dirty dozen" list on Tuesday of scams perpetrated with unsolicited commercial e-mail , or Spam as it is better known.

It was timed to coincide with the publication of a report co-ordinated by the Washington-based Centre for Democracy and Technology which focuses on the strain placed on the Internet's infrastructure by mass mailings of Spam.

FTC solicits the unsolicited

The FTC has appealed for and received more than 250,000 items of junk mail since last autumn forwarded to it by consumers. They were put into a searchable database and then studied with a view to prosecutions. Five actions have so far been instigated and letters have been sent to more than a thousand spammers warning them they are acting illegally.

The database was also used to compile the "dirty dozen" list, which was "a tip-off to a rip-off", the Director of the Consumer Protection Bureau, Jodie Bernstein, told a news conference.

The top twelve tricks:

  • Business opportunity scams are often old pyramid schemes in disguise, offering huge amounts of income for a small investment in time and money.

  • Bulk e-mailing offers consist of selling lists of e-mail addresses or software for companies or individuals to use. They are often of poor quality and such mailings can be illegal.

  • Chain letters with claims such as "Make $50,000 in less than 90 days" are just as illegal as the paper versions.

  • Work-At-Home schemes offering money for filling envelopes or assembling craft items rarely produce any return.

  • Health and Diet scams offering scientific breakthroughs, miracle cures and secret formulas are just electronic snake oil, according to the FTC.

  • Easy Money offers people the chance to "Learn how to make $4,000 in one day" and other such outlandish claims.

  • Get Something Free uses the bait of free computers and phone cards to get consumers to pay membership fees. They are then told they do not qualify unless they sign up other members.

  • Investment Opportunities tout outrageously high rates of return with no risk, says the FTC.

  • Cable Descrambler Kits are supposed to give you cable television without having to pay a subscription. The practice is illegal, the kits often don't work.

  • Guaranteed loans or credit on easy terms can turn out to be lists of lending institutions or credit cards that never arrive.

  • Credit Repair Scams can charge a fee to clear up a bad credit record. But such records cannot be erased.

  • Holiday prize promotions offer cheap luxury holidays, but the accommodation never seems to match up to the promises and upgrades prove expensive.

Ad-hoc's six-point plan

The Ad-Hoc Working Group on Spam makes six points in the conclusion of its report:

  • Technical tools and public policies should be pursued to give individuals greater control over incoming e-mail.

  • Similar attempts should be made to prevent the use of forged headers (return addresses) in messages.

  • The cost structure of the e-mail system with regard to Spam should be explored by the private sector.

  • There should be attempts at self-regulation by senders of unsolicited commercial e-mail.

  • Efforts should be stepped up to eliminate e-mail fraud.

  • The relevant standard-setting bodies should continue to search for technical standards and specifications that will help users control incoming Spam and ease the burden it places on the network.

The report was the culmination of a ten-month process involving a wide range of companies and organisations, including America Online, Compuserve and Hotmail.

"The report reflects a tremendous effort by organisations and companies to forge consensus where many thought none possible," said Deirdre Mulligan, coordinator of the Working Group.

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