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Beware Spam From Cyber-Drug Dealers

Last month, Microsoft (search) and Pfizer (search) teamed up to file lawsuits against companies engaged in illegal spamming (search).

Businesses of all sizes and most consumers have to deal with spam, so it was heartening to see leaders from different industries joining together to fight this problem. But they can’t do it alone — these companies need assistance from millions of other players — everyday computer users like you and me.

This partnership is only the latest example of the private sector playing a leading role in the battle against spam and other modern day computer plagues like spyware and computer viruses. Last year, AOL, Yahoo, Earthlink and Microsoft all joined together to form the Anti-Spam Technical Alliance (search) to publish industry guidelines for better protection of consumers from spam. These same companies, and others, have taken a number of bold steps — jointly and individually — in the fight against spam. These actions have included lawsuits, cash rewards and technological innovations.

The actions by Microsoft and Pfizer are particularly important because leading companies from two separate industries have joined together to combat a growing problem.

Pfizer has created a very successful product in Viagra. But unfortunately, this brand name has also been exploited by illegal drug dealers who promote their operations with spam. And though felonious, these businesses ultimately are a financial success because, unfortunately, too many consumers are responding to these unsolicited emails hawking an illegal product.

We tell consumers all the time that they are the front lines in the war against spam and they can take a number of steps to protect themselves and their computers. Most importantly, it’s critical not to open or respond to any spam emails. When I say don’t respond to spam, this means there are three actions that you should not take.

First, do not reply to the spammer, even to try to “unsubscribe.” These unsubscribe promises from spammers are bogus — your reply just tells them that your email address is live and you take the time to read their solicitations.

Second, do not click on an embedded link in a spam message, even just for fun. At the very least, you reward a spammer by visiting the promoted website. Worse, these links can take you to sites that download spyware or other malware onto your computer.

Third, do not go to a website promoted by spam, even if you load the web address directly into your browser without clicking on a link. An illegal website selling fake pharmaceuticals — or anything for that matter — is a little like a Broadway show. If no one shows up, it goes dark.

These Do-Not-Respond rules aim to attack the soulless heart of spam, but they do not address the broader issue of fraudulent e-commerce (search). Spam costs consumers and business time and money and open your computer and network to possible fraud. But these concerns pale in comparison to the harm that will come from using illegally manufactured pharmaceuticals purchased from a spammer.

The reality is, if something sounds too good to be true, it most likely is. Would you buy a prescription medication from a stranger in a trench coat at the end of a dark alley and expect it to be legitimate? That’s the real world equivalent of responding to spam to obtain a prescription drug.

Does this then mean that you shouldn’t order prescription medications over the Internet? Of course not. But you need to exercise a little caution and do a little research. Find out what company is the online prescription drug partner of your health insurer. The FDA also provides guidelines entitled, “Buying Medicines and Products Online.” Other consumer organizations provide advice on this topic as well.

It obviously makes no sense to blame Pfizer for this mess. The company is the victim of its product’s success. In filing lawsuits against spammers, Pfizer is protecting its business — but it is also taking action for the good of consumers.

Microsoft and other technology leaders like AOL, Yahoo and EarthLink are fighting spam for similar reasons — they want to protect the value of their own products and make those products better for consumers. Unfortunately, as we all know too well, the very technology products that we rely on — most notably email — also make spam possible.

If we want to point fingers, they need to be aimed at criminals who send millions of unsolicited email messages, who set up bogus websites, who peddle illegal pharmaceuticals. State, federal and international law enforcement agencies are working together to fight crime on the Internet. Technology and non-technology businesses are dedicating resources to the battle as well.

To join in these efforts, consumers need to roll up their sleeves and help delete spam, too.

Jim Prendergast is the executive director of Americans for Technology Leadership.