Spam bill making headway in US Pt II

Part two: The suspicious DVD offer
Written by Bob Sullivan, Contributor

The DVD offer forwarded to MSNBC was posted in several Internet newsgroups 16 May. It urged readers to call a free 800 number and order the $89 DVD player quickly because "only 2,000 units will be sold in our online marketing test

When MSNBC called to order the unit, it was told the only acceptable form of payment was electronic funds transfer -- in other words, we were told to surrender all the information necessary for someone to drain our checking account.

"It does sound strange, sir," admitted one operator. MSNBC called four separate operators before ordering. "But we've got a lot of responses to the offer... A lot of people are just fine with (giving away their account numbers). It's like giving a cheque to someone in the store."

Experts say it's not safe to surrender your checking account number to online or telephone merchants.

Operators, when pressed, said consumers were purchasing the player from Surplus Electronics, a subsidiary of Z-bok Financial, a Texas firm. They refused to provide an address and no listing for Z-bok could be found.

But the number that appeared in the spam mail was found in a series of other spam offers made during the Christmas season. ChooseYourMail.com searched its database of millions of spam mails and found dozens of occurrences of that 800 number, all with steeply discounted DVD offers.

MSNBC was told the player would arrive in two weeks when ordered on 24 May. One week later and ever since, there's been no answer at the 800 number, and the player has yet to arrive. Funds have not been drawn from the special checking account set up to purchase the player.

There are ways to stop spam. Several e-mail providers offer filters that prevent annoying mass mailings from getting through to users. Problem is, they can eliminate legitimate messages as well, so called 'false positives'.

Oxman says many filters deleted e-mails concerning 'SuperBowl XXXII' this January, as software erroneously recognized the messages as XXX-porn related.

"The subject line of $$$ usually indicates spam," said Catlett of Junkbusters.com. "But it could be good news from a business colleague." Brightmail thinks it's got the best solution available. Its filters work a bit like antivirus software -- the company has dummy mailboxes all around the Internet, and when one of them receives spam, the offending e-mail is immediately blacklisted.

Clients who use Brightmail's service immediately stop all copies of that e-mail from hitting customers. According to a study the company funded, performed by eTesting Labs (formerly ZD Labs), 73 percent of spam sent at a service using Brightmail's filters were stopped.

But some private groups say filters just mask the real problem behind spam -- marketers making consumers and Internet providers indirectly fund their advertising campaigns. In fact, some say, filters make things worse.

"Filtering doesn't really address the problem. It's a Band-Aid," said Barrett. "Filtering approaches are bad for both consumers and businesses. It doesn't address the cost problem, it actually exacerbates the cost problem. Filtering is actually more expensive than sending the spam itself."

While not opposed to filters, ChooseYourMail.com's Oxman added that filters all at once add a hidden cost to Internet service costs while serving to minimize consumer outrage over spam.

"If people were receiving every spam, there would be louder cry for consumer action," he said. Meanwhile, even blocking three-quarters of all spam isn't much to write home about, he said.

"What if the US Postal Service caught only three out of four porno solicitations -- would you be happy?" Oxman said. "I think that this study is another example of the need for federal attention to this issue."

To go back to part one of this story.

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