The federal agency that fights Internet scams and spam is caught in the middle of an effort to fool e-mail recipients.

The Federal Trade Commission warned this week that scammers are behind messages from the phony address of "frauddep@ftc.gov."

The e-mails claim that a has been filed with the FTC against the e-mail's recipient.

An attachment to them includes a virus that, if opened, will install a program that can steal passwords and account numbers from receiving computers.

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Government officials said recipients of such e-mail should be suspicious of them for one simple reason: Federal agencies rarely communicate with citizens over e-mail.

Instead of clicking on the attachment, the FTC said, recipients should forward it to spam@uce.gov, the FTC's spam database.

Because the sending address on e-mails can be easily spoofed, scammers often try to mimic legitimate companies and government agencies in hopes of making their messages appear believable.

The FTC said earlier this year that corporate and banking executives, among other consumers, have received fake e-mails with spyware attachments purporting to be from the agency.

The Treasury Department, meanwhile, said it has received tens of thousands of complaints about messages purportedly from the IRS.

Further information about bogus e-mail is available at http://www.OnGuardOnline.gov, a computer fraud site maintained by several government agencies.