If you were dreaming about convincing real estate mogul Donald Trump to bring you on as his next apprentice, you needed to look no further than your e-mail inbox in 2005 to find information on how to achieve the far-flung career goal, according to America Online Inc.
While reporting that it made progress in stopping unsolicited e-mails from reaching its customers in 2005, the ISP and Web portal released on Thursday a list of the most frequent spam attacks it tracked over the last twelve months.
Sitting atop the list of the most common spam messages for the year were counterfeit e-mails offering a chance to work for The Donald, new medical products for improving your love life or losing weight, and free electronic devices.
According to AOL, a subsidiary of media giant Time Warner Inc., based in Dulles, Va., the more widespread use of e-mail filtering tools and increased attention from law enforcement and legislators made a significant impact on the volume of spam it churned in 2005.
Compared with the peak of spam in late 2003, the company said it is receiving 75 percent fewer complaints from its customers over unwanted e-mails.
Despite the decline in user complaints however, AOL said it continues to be bombarded with bogus messages.
The company reported that it stopped an average of 1.5 billion spam messages per day from reaching its customers and estimated that it blocked a total of over 500 billion e-mails during the course of the year, representing a slight increase over 2004.
Overall, AOL said spam made up a staggering 80 percent of the e-mail sent to its servers.
Another disturbing trend tracked by AOL in 2005 was an increasing sophistication on the part of spammers, who appeared to be using more targeted and devious schemes to try to convince users to open their messages.
The company said six of the top 10 e-mail campaigns it battled over the last twelve months fell into the category of "special order spam," or e-mails that went beyond the messages of previous years in trying to mislead potential recipients.
Among the ploys that AOL cited as part of the trend toward smarter spam were e-mails that used subject lines crafted to seem as if they were sent in response to real messages, such as "Your Mortgage Application Is Ready" or a simple "Thank You."
"Spammers have been on a year-long mission to mislead and deceive in 2005," Charles Stiles, postmaster at AOL, said in a statement. "While the volume of spam reaching AOL e-mail inboxes has remained at low levels, the spam that's out there is more insidious, crafty, devious and dangerous than ever."
Stiles said AOL's work to pursue spammers has unearthed a disturbing trend toward more organized efforts by the people responsible for the unwanted e-mail, including a tendency to use more elaborate technological measures to distribute their attacks.
Whereas spammers seemed more likely to work alone and launch simpler "hit and run" e-mail campaigns in 2004, the executive said, those responsible for the messages morphed into a more tightly knit "Web-based spam mafia" that coordinated sustained attacks in 2005.
"What we're seeing is that spammers are far more organized and professional than ever before," Stiles said. "They are going after Main Street USA with back-alley tactics, and they are doing it with a specialized team that's working overtime to hide the source of their spam by employing zombie PC's, bot-nets and using other nefarious tactics."
As in previous years, products that offer to improve physical appearance or sexual performance, along with offers for prescription drugs, remained popular themes for many unsolicited e-mails. Fake promotions promising free Apple iPods and Microsoft Xbox 360 video game consoles came in fourth on the list of most popular spam attempts.
Rounding out AOL's top 10 most popular spam campaigns were messages designed to look like they came from a friend named "Lisa," as well as e-mails offering breaking stock market news, false shipment notifications, counterfeit mortgage applications, deals on Rolex watches and online prescription services.
To help continue the fight against spam in 2006, AOL recommends that users more closely protect their personal information online, avoid clicking links in unsolicited e-mails, keep their spam-filtering software up to date and report any suspicious messages they receive to their ISPs.
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