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Porn spam sparks investigation

The FBI continues its investigation into an email sent throughout the world from America Online that advertised child pornography.

The FBI is continuing its investigation into an email sent throughout the world from America Online that advertised child pornography, a bureau spokesman said today.

"We are investigating the matter," said FBI Special Agent Larry Foust. He would not elaborate but added that the FBI has an ongoing investigation of child pornography exchanged online.

Sources have told CNET that the FBI strongly believes that the email was a prank--one that has caused much worry, time, and money.

Andrew Graziani, a spokesman for AOL said, "The FBI is looking into it along with several other agencies."

The email was sent out at about midnight Sunday night. Although the message had an AOL return address, it does not necessarily follow that it is genuine, Graziani said. It is not uncommon for users to sign up for AOL using fake identities.

AOL immediately terminated the accounts after the reports of the email Monday. But many in the Internet community assumed that the letter was genuine and responded immediately, 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.

On the other hand, many Net users didn't know where or to whom to report the letter or whether it constituted an actual crime. Many called local police precincts or contacted the media, asking for an investigation. New York police in particular were flooded with hundreds of calls.

"I was wondering if anyone knows where or who I can email about this, since child pornography is highly illegal, and I'd like nothing better than to nail this SOB against the wall," said one Netizen in a Usenet posting.

Other Netizens in online forums even wondered if the letter was part of some kind of sting operation. "Surely, no one in the 'business' of selling child pornography would be so unbelievably stupid as to send an email spam to complete strangers," said one Usenet writer. "I suspect that this might be an attempt to frame someone. It is possible that someone at America Online could have sent this email spam for the express purpose of getting someone in trouble with the law."

"I don't like spam, simply because I get a lot of it, and it eats up a lot of my time," said Mary E.S. Morris, an author and Web designer. "This one is far more disgusting than average."

She added that she doubted the email was spoofed, after looking at it on her Unix system. Rather, she speculated that someone with a stolen credit card signed on to the online service and sent out the email.

The email was sent with the AOL screen names "R9ch" and "TipToe0001," according to email buzzing across the Internet today. It 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. The letter was signed by a man who gave his complete address in Jackson Heights, New York.

Many recipients of the letter balked, telling police and reporters that they didn't know how its author could have gotten their email address. Many suggested as well that the email may have been a nasty prank.

"We've been getting calls from all over the world since this morning--from Germany, Norway, Sweden--everybody," said Kevin Hui, an officer in the vice squad at the New York Police Department. "There's an active investigation going on. We'll be coming close to something soon."