By Bob Sullivan Technology correspondent
msnbc.com
updated 5/26/2004 6:05:41 PM ET 2004-05-26T22:05:41

Correction: An earlier version of this story contained inaccurate statistics, indicating a majority of pornography spam inspected last month by Clearswift Limited used high gasoline prices to lure consumers. Clearswift's initial analysis was incorrect because the firm's full-text search for the work "gas" also picked up instances of the word orgasm. Actual use of the gas price tactic in porn spam was minor, the firm now says. MSNBC.com regrets the error.

Everyone's talking about it; and now, so are spammers.  Gas prices are so high the subject is challenging the weather as the most popular water-cooler chat topic.  And, true to form, spammers are hard at work trying to take advantage of the situation.

High gas prices are being used to market all kinds of products. Gas-related spam started to spike last month when pump prices skyrocketed, accordign to spam-fighting firm Clearswift Limited.

One spam received at MSNBC.com with the subject line "Beat the high cost of gasoline," came with an offer to receive $100 in free gas.  Recipients who clicked on the link were sent to a Web site named "SaveAtThePump.com."  The site includes logos for Texaco, Exxon, and other major brands, and tells readers they will receive $100 in gas coupons just for answering a few short questions.

However, far more is required than a few simple answers. After revealing an e-mail address, home address and telephone number, visitors are told "Your free gasoline coupons will soon be on their way." Not quite.

Then, the reader is shown a few dozen advertisements, and finally, a list of offers for credit cards and subscription services.  Visitors must "complete" an offer by signing up for one of the services in order to receive the coupons, a requirement spelled out in small print at the bottom of the site:

"By 'completing' an offer, you are fulfilling the registration requirements unique to each offer. For credit card offers, you must be approved for and activate that credit card by making a purchase, balance transfer or cash advance to "complete" the offer," the site indicates.

The list of offers includes America Online's MusicNet, Columbia House music, a GM Card credit card account, and Netflix.

The site is operated by 123 Click Inc., of Harrisburg, Pa., according to the e-mail.  Phone calls and e-mails sent to the company weren't returned.

Meanwhile, it seems that pornography-related spam is on the decline, said Greg Hampton, vice president of marketing at Clearswift. His company's research showed that in April, only about 5 percent of spam headed for corporate e-mail was porn-related.  The largest percent of spam was sent to advertise health care services, including Viagra and its imitators -- a full 40 percent.  Another 37 percent of spam hawked financial services, particularly mortgage refinancing. 

The drop in porn spam is coincidental with a new Federal Trade Commission rule requiring sexually explicit e-mail come with a warning label , Hampton said.  Porn spam has been dropping steadily since December, he said, when it represented 22 percent of all spam. E-mail marketers have perhaps decided to drop porn ads because they aren't as profitable as other products, he said.

"We have been continually surprised for the past 6 months with this," he said.

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