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Porn hoax suspected

While the FBI continues investigating an email advertising child pornography, Netizens are increasingly speculating that the offensive message was a hoax, perhaps sent in revenge.

While the FBI continues investigating an email advertising child pornography sent to thousands of people, Netizens are increasingly speculating that the offensive message was a hoax, perhaps sent in revenge.

FBI Special Agent Larry Foust said the FBI is investigating the matter but would not elaborate.

However, sources have told CNET that the FBI strongly suspects that the email was a prank, though agents are still taking the matter seriously, devoting many hours and resources to investigating it.

Netizens have been speculating that the child pornography spam, originating from America Online addresses, was sent as revenge against a man who allegedly is a notorious mass-emailer himself. The pornography email ended by asking users to send their money and orders to a man with an address in the Jackson Heights area of New York City.

One Netizen posting in Usenet alleges that the man "is a real person" who sells a program that he claims will allow a person to use AOL for free. "It seems very likely that a disgruntled AOL user fed up with his spamming was responsible for this," the Usenet poster said.

But sources said the name used in the email was fictitious, and others believed that it was a hoax as soon as they saw it.

"I looked at it and said, 'Jesus, this old fish coming up to the surface again?' This is annoying," said Tanith Tyrr, a journalist and consultant who has been using the Internet for several years. "This is the oldest trick in the book."

She and many others also pointed out that no real pornographer--or any publisher, for that matter--would be able to offer such rock-bottom prices for their material.

"The prices are an absolute fairy tale," said Tim Hahn, owner of Criminalistics Consulting, which provides free guidance to members of the Association of Online Professionals. "A complete color catalog--160 pages. Can you do this for $5?"

He added that pornography bought and sold over the Net usually is a lot more discreet and often encrypted. "That's as bogus as it comes," Hahn said.

The email was sent out around midnight Sunday. An AOL spokeswoman said today that the online service is "confident that the owners of the screen names are not the originators of the message."

As is the standard practice, AOL immediately terminated the user accounts after reports began circulating Monday.

Although many believed that the letter was a prank, others feared it was genuine and responded quickly to denounce it, trying to douse a potential political fire before it had time to catch. Netizens have become increasingly sensitive to the public perception that the Internet is a bastion of pornography.

The email advertised pictures, tapes, posters, recordings, and games, all using child pornography.

The letter, entitled "Child XXX," began with a friendly, "Hi! I sent you this letter because your email address was on a list that fit this category." It then went on to describe the offerings and provide detailed pricing information, saying that all major credit cards were welcome, except American Express.