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Behind Patriotic Words, Same Old Spam
Jonathan Krim, Washington Post 2003-04-10

"Spam" e-mail, already a costly and frustrating bane of computer users and

corporations, has surged as spammers invoke the war in Iraq as a way to lure

customers.

Government regulators and anti-spam software vendors warn of a fresh raft of

come-ons that play on emotions and fears about the war, from offering

encouragement to U.S. troops to selling patriotic T-shirts, pins and books on

how to survive a biological attack. Many are run by known spammers, including

some who also are linked to Web sites that offer pornography.

San Francisco-based Brightmail Inc., a major provider of corporate

spam-blocking services, estimates it has captured 50,000 different war-related

spam messages in its filters since the war began last month. SurfControl PLC,

another filtering vendor, said spam has increased by 10 percent in the same

period.

An examination of several pieces of war-related spam shows that some lead

with subject lines that say "Support Bush & War Effort" but have messages that

peddle vacation packages or investment tips.

Others sell products with the promise that a portion of the proceeds will go

to support families of soldiers or victims of terrorism.

At www.helpoursoldiers.com, a Web site adorned with images of the American

flag, prospective buyers are promised that for every "Pro-American Operation

Iraqi Freedom" T-shirt sold, the company will donate money to America First

Inc., a licensed Southern California charity dedicated to helping families of

the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorism attacks.

The charity's executive director, retired Army Maj. Arthur S. Manchester, said

he was not aware of the offer and had received no donations. And when customers

decide to purchase a shirt, the electronic payment system used by the site

directs funds to Mystro Enterprises Inc., which is separately linked to at

least one Internet pornography site. Calls to a Minneapolis company that hosts

the T-shirt site were not returned. The pornography site is registered in

Antigua.

Another message, with a subject line that says "Support USA Tops 2003," directs

potential customers to www.iraqtshirts.com, which is also decorated with stars

and stripes and which provides an audio rendition of "America the Beautiful."

The site is registered to Internet Products Group Inc. in Los Angeles, which

is identified by bulk-mail tracking organizations as a large spammer marketing

various products. A call to the company was not returned.

"We see spam mirroring current world conditions," said S. Brian Huseman, a

staff lawyer at the Federal Trade Commission, which maintains a spam database

that is receiving roughly 120,000 spam e-mails a day. "In bad economic times,

there often are deceptive business opportunities. After September 11, spam

tried to promote a sense of patriotism," which the agency is seeing again.

Huseman said that last month the agency logged nearly 2,500 war-related pieces

of spam.

As with many marketing offers that are made during times of crisis or disaster,

consumer fraud and spam experts warn consumers to be cautious with e-mail

solicitations that invoke the war.

"It's human nature, and part of the commercial cycle, that marketers jump on

the next bandwagon," said Susan Getgood, senior vice president for marketing at

SurfControl. "The key thing is that consumers need to have a certain amount of

skepticism."

Particularly insidious, experts say, are e-mails that purport to be surveys

measuring public opinion on the war, or that simply offer computer users a way

to express their support for the troops.

Responding to these messages is likely to help spammers "harvest" valid e-mail

addresses, which are added to lists and sold throughout the bulk e-mail

community.

Many of the captured e-mails advertised products leveraging people's anxiety

about terrorism and the country's heightened national security alerts.

One message, from a company based in France called BizzyDays Ebook

Publications, advertises a downloadable, electronic book that teaches how to

survive in the event of a chemical or biological attack.

"You can NOT rely on the authorities to protect your family against attack,"

warns the site. "Take action now to ensure your family's safety. If YOU don't,

who will?"

The book sells for $17, with $1 of the proceeds promised to be donated to "an

international aid agency."

The author is listed as Nathalie Hopkins, whose credentials are not provided.

The company's contact name is listed as Michael Hopkins. A call to the listed

telephone number in France was not answered.

The BizzyDays site lists many other e-books and articles for sale, including

titles on healthy baby food, how to increase traffic to Web sites, and how to

get marketing e-mail past electronic spam filters.

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