CYBERSPACE, 2004 (D.O.T.) - Much to the chagrin of Hormel Foods, maker of the canned luncheon meat, the term "SPAM" has today come to mean network abuse, particularly junk E-mail and massive junk postings. The first recorded abuse occurred in 1978, but it wasn’t officially called “SPAM” until 1993.

SPAM is not only annoying, opening email from unknown senders can harm your computer if it’s carrying a virus. Smart CyberSpacers delete spam. But if you don't hit the delete button too fast, you may have noticed that your spam messages are changing. Big time.

Spam used to arrive with offers for pornography. Now it has become a hotbed for all sorts of financial scams and a black market for fake pharmaceuticals and bad software.

The BBC News Online reports that spam is shifting from nuisance to illegality, according to the British security firm Clearswift that has measured spam message topics for the past year. "Spam is now being used as a channel for a plethora of malicious and illegal activity," says technical director, Alyn Hockey.

This is what makes up the spam pie:
Finance: 39 percent
Healthcare: 30.6 percent
Other: 15 percent
Direct Products: 9.6 percent
Porn/Profanity: 4.8 percent
Scams: 1 percent

Why is there now more spam email for “miracle diets” rather than porn? Hockey says porn has been drastically reduced thanks to improved filtering technology. While porn has dropped to 4.8 percent of spam, compared with 21.8 percent a year ago, financial and pharmaceutical spam messages now make up nearly 70 percent of these annoying emails.

The dirty little secret of spam is that it works. Enough people respond to it to make it a viable business. Hockey estimates that spammers have a one in 40,000 hit rate for the products they sell online. One reason for their success is that spammers pay attention to what's going on in the real world.

"When Arnold Schwarzenegger was campaigning to be governor of California, there was lots of spam about offering Schwarzenegger memorabilia," explains Hockey. "Just watch. Toys and games will dominate before Christmas, and miracle diets will land in your email box after the New Year’s celebrations."

The scariest spam messages of all are those that try to steal information from you, including your Social Security number and credit card numbers. Click on these messages, and you'll go to what looks like a legitimate site, but the personal data you enter is being stolen from you – something called ‘fishing’ but spelled, “Phishing”.

Hackers and spammers are joining forces, trying to infect home PCs with Trojan horse viruses that turn them into zombie PCs that can be remotely controlled without the owner's knowledge. Hockey predicts all this illegal activity will get worse before it gets better, but like pornography, hopefully, it will eventually decline.

"Pornography was offensive so there was a real push to try and stop it. The same will become true of phishing once people become aware of it," Hockey concludes.


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