Friday, April 07, 2006

Phish More Malevolent than Spam

For decades, everyone with a mailbox has had to put up with junk mail. There just seems to be more of it these days.

There are few days that I don’t pull a fist full of the stuff out of my mailbox. Whatever it cost the advertisers to send it to me, it was a waste of money. I never even open most of it, and I never respond to any of it by making a purchase, unless I was going to buy the product anyway.

When fax machines began to increase in popularity, hawkers decided it would be a good medium to use to sell their wares. But that idea was short lived and soon became illegal when it brought the ire of the fax machine owners.

Then came spam. I don’t mean SPAM, the trademark of the Hormel Meat Company, but spam, the colloquial moniker of unsolicited commercial e-mail. While all three forms of unsolicited ads are annoying, the latter two are also restricted or regulated by law.

The reason is simple. Junk mail delivered by the Post Office was paid for by the person or company that sent it. It is, therefore, self-limiting. Junk faxes and spam, however, also cost the recipients.

While it might cost the sender 15 or 20 cents to send a flier or catalog, it costs a tiny fraction of a penny to send an unsolicited e-mail. Larger spammers may send out millions of them every day.

They are not only annoying, but costly in terms of time, Internet bandwidth, and disk storage space. Far more than half of all e-mail messages sent are spam.

So the Federal Trade Commission is charged with locating and prosecuting spammers who do not follow strict federal guidelines. Several states also have their own anti-spam laws.

California has one of the harshest spam laws. And last week that state and the FTC put one group of spammers out of business for good. Optin Global, Vision Media, Qing Kuang "Rick" Yang and Peonie Pui Ting Chen agreed to pay a fine of $425,000 and never send spam again.

But as prolific as that group was in sending spam, putting them out of business won’t result in a noticable decrease in the amount of junk e-mail most of us get each day.

And spam isn’t the only illegal e-mail activity that is troubling. Spam, although unwelcome and annoying, is typically used to advertise real products or services. Sometimes it is used to advertise scams.

But there is one type of e-mail that is always a scam, and it is becoming as prevelent as spam. It’s called phishing.

Phishing is a scam that tries to obtain personal information, such as passwords or credit card numbers, from unsuspecting victims by using e-mail trickery. Most of us who use e-mail have been victimized by phishing attempts, even if we didn’t bite.

But phishing scams are getting more sophisticated. I hate to admit it, but I recently fell for a phishing scam, and I pride myself on being one of the least gullible computer users around.

I accidentally gave out my eBay password in response to an e-mail that not only looked identical to a legitimate question from an online bidder, but also seemed to have a legitimate eBay Web address from which a reply could be sent. I immediately figured out that I had been duped, so I quickly changed my password. I lost nothing. But others have not been so lucky.

People have lost hundreds or even thousands of dollars by being the victims of phishing trickery. It’s not only every bit as annoying as spam, but potentially very costly as well.

I applaud every effort made by state and federal governments to shut down spammers. But there now needs to be a greater effort to go after the phishing scammers.

Individual computer users naturally must be vigilant to the problem. Never click on any link in an e-mail unless you’re 100 percent certain where the link is taking you. It’s better to use your bookmarks.

But phishing is fraud. And it’s a special kind of fraud that seeks to scam the masses. It’s potentially a much bigger problem than spam and should receive attention from the FTC commensurate with the potential harm it can cause.

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