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Stupid spam tricks

Spammers invent new tricks as fast as consumers learn not to be drawn in

December 23, 1998
Web posted at: 11:40 AM EST

by Ed Foster, InfoWorld columnist


(IDG) -- When you look at some of the tricks spammers use to try to make a buck, it's amazing to realize how stupid they must think we are. What's even more amazing is that some of us actually fall for them.

It's not that the junk e-mailers have any truly new tricks up their sleeves. Mostly they play the same classic swindles and scams that con artists have been using for centuries, only now they're playing them across the Internet. Still, I keep seeing new variations on those classic themes among the junk e-mail messages forwarded to me by InfoWorld readers, and some of them are at least convincing enough that a few readers will ask if I think they might be legitimate.

So, given that the new anti-spam laws we looked at last week aren't likely to stem the flow of junk e-mail in the immediate future, it's probably a good idea to go over some of the techniques that spam artists are using just to make sure you don't get fooled.

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Some of the most dangerous spam tricks are also some of the simplest. You're offered a terrific money-making opportunity or a great bargain, and it's totally risk-free because if at any point you're unsatisfied, you're guaranteed your money back. One recent example was a message promoting a supposed government-held "Wyoming oil lands lottery" -- for a mere $45, you would be signed up and have a chance at an easy fortune. Because you can always cancel the credit card charge, there is really no risk. Of course, the fact that you're giving your credit card information out to unknown parties is perhaps just a little risky if you think about it, but the spammer's hope is that greed will keep you from thinking.

And if greed doesn't work, the credit card trollers can play on fear. A forum participant on InfoWorld Electric shared one message he'd received that was apparently supposed to be taken for an official notice of a problem with his credit card record.

"Dear owner of card," the message stated. "We are very sorry to inform you that due to the malfunction of our computer system you [sic] file has been damaged. Please, e-mail us the type, number, and expiration date for your major credit card so we can recover your credit information."

Typos and odd phrasing throughout the message would hopefully alert even the most gullible recipient, but it's easy to imagine how better execution of the same idea could pay dividends for the spammer.

That spammers aren't always the brightest people (after all, most of them presumably fell prey initially to the same kind of get-rich-quick schemes that they now try to purvey to the rest of us) may be our best defense.

The junk e-mailer who touts the capability to provide you with a diploma within days from an accredited university keeps finding new ways to misspell the word "diploma" in the subject line. A favorite of mine is the message selling a large e-mail address list on CD-ROM that offers a number of stirring testimonials to the effectiveness of the list from other spammers who clearly have already picked it clean. And then recently there was the spammer who, apparently not wishing to give a true phone number in the junk e-mail he was sending, gave the number for a local police department instead.

One spammer trick that is relatively easy to fall for is the "global remove list" that promises you will never be bothered by spammers again if you sign up. One such service that is still being promoted in many spam messages even though the site appears to be defunct, is the site that many readers complained about.

While the site was still up, its owners made it quite difficult to find the free sign-up for the remove list, trying to lure you instead to pay for their "gold" remove list. And those who did sign up on the free list are now getting more spam because of it, not less. Global remove lists don't work because, even in the unlikely event that they are created with sincere intentions, there is nothing to make the spammers use them the way they are intended. Rather than go to the bother of checking addresses they are about to spam against such a list, they are more likely to use it as a list they can sell to other spammers.

The latest twist on the global remove list idea (one being promoted by many of the same bulk e-mailers who promised they would honor the remove-list site, so you know how much faith you can put in it) is a toll-free number that you are supposed to call to be added to a remove list.

I'm not entirely sure what the game is here, but I suspect with caller ID the spammers might hope to build telemarketing/spam lists they could sell to legitimate marketing operations.

I am sure, though, that whatever the scam is, I don't want to be the fool who falls for it.

Ed Foster has been writing about technology and consumer issues for nearly 20 years. Send him gripes about computer companies and products at or call (800) 227-8365, Ext. 7710.

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