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Spam bill making headway in US Pt I

A measure to restrict e-mail scams is finally making headway in Congress. But the junk e-mail industry, already worth $1bn (£0.66bn), has a strong head start
Written by Bob Sullivan, Contributor

It sounded like a great deal -- a chance to buy a brand-new DVD player for $89 (£59.88). Untold thousands of Internet users heard about it in mid-May from an unsolicited e-mail. But call the number to order, and operators insist on deducting payment directly from your checking account.

Where was the seller? Operators wouldn't say. And when would the player arrive? The one MSNBC ordered as a test is still missing. Experts say such suspicious Internet offers, and the spam mail that carries them, are becoming much more common -- just as the 'Can Spam' bill finally makes progress in Congress.

The House Commerce Committee passed an anti-spam bill Wednesday, setting up a vote later this summer by the full House and reconciliation with a bill already through the Senate. The bill would allow ISPs and consumers to sue spammers who violate the bill's regulations. Penalties could be $500 per message, up to $25,000, plus legal costs.

"This is farther than a spam bill has ever gotten before," said John Cusey, a Republican spokesman. "We have quite a bit of momentum going here."

But so do spammers.

The economics of the spam-scam combination is inevitable, irresistible and tipped steeply in favor of the bad guys. With a few keystrokes, a scam artist can send hundreds of thousands of messages.

Sure, the vast majority of recipients will see through the too-good-to-be-true offers. But even if 99.9 percent of all recipients reject a 100,000 e-mail spam where the goal is to get a victim's bank account information, the scam artists walk off with 100 checking accounts for a few seconds' work.

The bill would allow ISPs and consumers to sue spammers who violate the bill's regulations. "It's become the high-tech refuge of scam artists," said Jason Catlett, president of Junkbusters.com. "Spam is marketing for the bottom feeders."

And it will get even worse, experts fear. Even if increases in spam mail keep pace with overall increases in e-mail usage, some Internet users may find their inboxes hardly useable.

A Gartner Group study last year said 90 percent of Internet users receive at least one spam mail message per week. According to Brightmail, which sponsored that study, the distributed costs of spam exceed $1bn (£0.66bn) per year in server space, telecommunications costs and wasted employee time.

"The SBA (Small Business Administration) estimates there are 23 million businesses in America. If just one percent decide to send me their marketing message via e-mail just once a year, then I have to delete, on average, 690 e-mail messages a day," said Andrew Barrett, spokesperson for The Forum for Responsible & Ethical E-mail.

Government agencies and law enforcement aren't ignoring the problem. Several weeks ago the FBI and the National White Collar Crime Centre created the Internet Fraud Complaint Center. Several private organizations, such as Junkbusters and ChooseYourMail.com, are also devoted to beating back spam and the scams they often carry. But despite all efforts, experts say the problem is getting worse.

Brightmail, which monitors the amount of 'spam attacks' as part of its spam mail filter product, says there were 3,100 attacks per day during recent months -- compared to 2,300 daily attacks in the first three months of the year.

"We're seeing an ever-increasing amount of spam attacks," said Gary Hermansen, CEO of Brightmail.

While exact statistics are hard to come by, experts also believe a greater percentage of spam mailings are attempted scams than in the past.

"Ninety-five percent of the things sent via bulk e-mail are scams," said Audri Lanford, co-editor of Scambusters.org. "Even if it doesn't have other suspicious characteristics."

Ian Oxman, president of ChooseYourMail.com, said the percentages weren't quite that bad, but only because about 30 percent of spam notes are for legitimate pornography Web sites. During a recent study, his organization found another 30 percent of all spams involved get-rich-quick schemes, about one quarter were product offerings, and 10 percent were health cures.

Go to part two: The suspicious DVD offer

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