Hearing from a lot of new friends lately? You know, the ones that write "It's me, Esmeralda," and tip you off to an obscure stock that is "poised to explode" or a great deal on prescription drugs.
You're not the only one. Spam is back - in e-mail in-boxes and on everyone's minds. In the last six months, the problem has gotten measurably worse. Worldwide spam volumes have doubled from last year, according to Ironport, a spam filtering firm, and unsolicited junk mail now accounts for more than 9 of every 10 e-mail messages sent over the Internet.
Much of that flood is made up of a nettlesome new breed of junk e-mail called image spam, in which the words of the advertisement are part of a picture, often fooling traditional spam detectors that look for telltale phrases. Image spam increased fourfold from last year and now represents 25 to 45 percent of all junk e-mail, depending on the day, Ironport says.
But don't spammers still have to link to the incriminating Web sites where they sell their disreputable wares? Well, not anymore. Many of the messages in the latest spam wave promote penny stocks - part of a scheme that antispam researchers call the "pump and dump." Spammers buy the inexpensive stock of an obscure company and send out messages hyping it. They sell their shares when the gullible masses respond and snap up the stock. No links to Web sites are needed in the messages.
Though the scam sounds obvious, a joint study by researchers at Purdue University and Oxford University this summer found that spam stock cons work. Enough recipients buy the stock that spammers can make a 5 percent to 6 percent return in two days, the study concluded.
The Securities and Exchange Commission has brought dozens of cases against such fraudsters over the years. But as a result of the Can-Spam Act, which forced domestic e-mail marketers to either give up the practice or risk jail, most active spammers now operate beyond the reach of American law enforcement. Antispam researchers say the current spam hot spots are in Russia, Eastern Europe and Asia.