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May 26, 2006

Life of spam: Who's feeding the 'in' box?

To Jeff Blank, the e-mail seemed legit.

No message promising a free Xbox 360. No free Hawaiian vacation. No lotteries from down under writing with good news.

It was his mortgage company in bold letters.

What had he done wrong? Was his payment late? Did his check bounce?

“It had the logo, and the look and feel of the company,” Blank said of his inbox message, which spammers send in hopes of scavenging financial information from careless victims, “but the site points to some place in China.”

As supervisor of microcomputing and networking for the Allegany County school system in western Maryland, Blank has developed an eye for spotting the hundreds of unsolicited e-mails that arrive in his inbox weekly. In just one month, his junk folder collected a staggering 2,800 commercial advertisements.

From fake auctions and pornography to bogus stock reports, spam runs the gamut in the world of online solicitation. Phishing – or requesting e-mail recipients to update, validate or confirm personal information such as credit card numbers or Social Security numbers – is fast becoming one of the most common, and lucrative, spam scams on the net.

The relatively cheap spamming business is so profitable, some spammers use it as their sole source of income, says Tom Merritt, an editor at c-net.com, a consumer-oriented Web site offering tech news and product reviews. And with millions, and sometimes billions, of unsolicited commercial e-mails delivered, spammers typically need a response of less than 1 percent to reap financial rewards.

“It’s pretty costly to be sending out so many pieces of mail to people that you don’t think will respond,” Merritt said. “With spam, you don’t care if 99 percent don’t respond. It doesn’t take that many at all because you can cheaply send them.”

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