A New Breed of E-Horror

On Jan. 12, Bil Corry thought he saw a cloud of doom hovering over his computer. Two of the biggest problems cluttering up Internet users' mailboxes are chain letters and spam. Chain letters are e-mail messages with an indefinite shelf life; often hoaxes, they can continue to circulate indefinitely by encouraging their recipients to forward them to everyone they know. (The most recent example is probably the hoax a few months back that purported to be from Bill Gates and offered recipients $5,000 if they would forward the message.)

Spam, as most everyone knows by now, is unsolicited commercial e-mail, the scourge of the Internet, which clogs Netizens' e-mail boxes and costs ISPs (and ultimately, you and me) outrageous gobs of money.

So when Corry, a former OC resident now living in Escondido, found in his inbox a message combining the two, he was appropriately horrified. The "chain spam," headed "$1,000 for sending an e-mail," was pitching a remote data-backup system offered by a company called AB Mailing, and it offered unwary recipients the chance to win $1,000 in a contest if they forwarded the message to their friends.

"This one is particularly insidious," Corry says. "It combines the 'Bill Gates will give you $5,000 so forward this message' spam with a get-rich-quick advertisement. It also violates the new state law regarding unsolicited e-mail advertisements. Ironically, by forwarding the message, your readers may then be liable under the new state law."

Corry says he promptly filed a complaint with the state attorney general's office; he's still waiting to hear back. (The attorney general's office confirmed that they had received a number of spam complaints, but they declined to state how many.) But further research has suggested that instead of having on our hands the birth of a new, virulent and irritating form of spam, we have a rather sordid tale of money, trickery and revenge.

Fun, huh?

The odyssey started when I noticed the chain spam contained an 800 number to call for more information, which struck me as particularly dim. Anti-spam activists have been known to call spammers' 800 numbers and ramble on for hours, thus racking up the spammers' phone bills and making spamming an intensely unprofitable exercise. So I called it, and instead of being connected with AB Mailing, I reached a company called Net Profit in Greenville, South Carolina. There, I spoke with a nice but frazzled woman named Melody Jolly, who confirmed that her phones had been ringing off the hook about the spam. She vehemently denied that her company was behind it.

"On Monday the 11th, I came to work and had 26 messages on my voice mail," Jolly said. "At first, we were just confused. But we're averaging anywhere between 25 to 75 calls per day. Some of the calls have been really interesting-I had someone call up and sing the ABCs 23 times in a row on my voice mail."

Jolly added, "We're talking about turning it over to our attorney, but every piece of information we've hauled up on this company [AB Mailing] is falsified. Every bit."

I tried to reach AB Mailing myself, but the phone number listed with Internic (the domain-registry agency) was disconnected. The company's Web site is down. And repeated calls to the company's upstream provider, SOSGLB, went unanswered.

I was inclined to believe Net Profit was on the up and up. John Mozena, co-founder and "PR droid" of the Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial Email, an anti-spam organization, suggested several general hypotheses:

1. The spammer inadvertently typed in the wrong telephone number. "I see spams every day with the most egregious spelling errors, just stupid mistakes," Mozena said. "It doesn't fill you with a whole bunch of confidence in the offer when the name of the product is misspelled."

2. The spammer just made up a number to make the offer look legitimate, and it happened to belong to Net Profit.

3. The spammer deliberately included Net Profit's 800 number in order to wreak havoc on the company.

4. Net Profit really is behind the spam, and the company is just denying it to put an end to the harassment.

Evidence is leaning strongly toward hypothesis No. 3. Revenge spams are hardly unknown; one fairly common tactic is for spammers to forge the headers so it appears the message came from a prominent anti-spammer, thus guaranteeing the victim will be deluged with angry e-mails and/or mail bombs. The opinion among anti-spam activists who have been dissecting the mailing is that Net Profit is the target of a malicious forgery, and the chain-letter touch was thrown in just to spread the damage as far as possible. For one thing, the message was sent to many of the posters on the news.admin.net-abuse.email newsgroup, the heart of anti-spam activism on the Net-the people most likely to complain and cause Net Profit problems.

Second, Corry received the original spam advertising AB Mailing's services on Jan. 11; Net Profit immediately began getting phone calls. On Jan. 18, another message started showing up in people's e-mail boxes; this one advertised Net Profit's services and gave the same 800 number. The description of the company's services was identical to a description appearing on an industry convention Web page. Who out there believes Net Profit is stupid enough to send out a second spam identifying itself by name when it's already getting cussed out on its voice mail several dozen times per day? And why would the same 800 number be attached to spams advertising two completely different businesses?

Finally, SOSGLB, the company listed with Internic as AB Mailing's domain server, is well-known among anti-spammers as a "spam factory."

Which sounds like the more plausible culprit?

A couple of days after our initial conversation, Jolly told me Net Profit had identified the person they believed to be behind the spam and was planning legal action. "They denied everything," she said. "But as of Wednesday morning, I've received no calls regarding the spam. The 75 calls per day we were getting dropped to zero."

It's small consolation for the folks at Net Profit that we seem to be dealing with the common revenge-spam vermin, rather than a new and troublesome life form. But Net Profit staff are no doubt taking a deep breath every time the phone rings. And of course, there's always the fear that some clever spammer will find out about this fabulous new method of clogging up our bandwidth.

May God have mercy on us all.

Have mercy on Wyn at machineage@mediaone.net.


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