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Suspicion arises of phone-damaging spam

Several AT&T Wireless subscribers say their Siemens S46 cell phones were damaged after receiving the same unsolicited e-mail.

Some AT&T Wireless subscribers believe a text message masquerading as spam is on the loose and damaging cell phones in the United States.

The subscribers reporting the problem each owned a Siemens S46 cell phone and said they received the e-mail this week.

Even when they did not open the e-mail, which began "Need Help With International Dialing," what some say could be malicious software hidden inside wiped out the cell phones' address book and e-mail capabilities.

It remains to be seen whether the subscribers were victims of a deliberate attack, which would be among the first in the United States to involve cell phones, or just bad software inside the devices, a representative of German handset maker Siemens said Friday. The S46 uses some of the same Siemens software in two of the company's cell phone models that are available only in Europe and were disabled in March by a wave of possibly malicious e-mails.

The incidents highlight growing concerns about how spam and malicious viruses, once the domain of personal computers only, are beginning to spread to wireless devices. Spam is becoming more commonplace on cell phones, enough to merit attention from this week's Federal Trade Commission Spam Forum in Washington, D.C.

But instances of malicious attacks on cell phones are extremely rare, although cell phone networks became vulnerable to such attacks when carriers began selling phones that can download software. The most well-known attack occurred in Japan in 2001 when an e-mail sent to NTT DoCoMo subscribers forced the phone to call a police emergency hotline.

"Obviously, the carriers can't stand this happening," said Alan Reiter, an analyst with consulting company .

AT&T Wireless offered to replace the phones for $10 each plus shipping and handling, the subscribers said. The phone sells for $50 after rebate. An AT&T Wireless representative, who had been unaware of the situation, did not have an immediate comment.

One AT&T Wireless subscriber, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the fateful short-text message landed in her in-box on Wednesday. She deleted it, believing it to be spam. Later she found a strange entry where addresses and telephone numbers are stored. She tried to delete that as well, but instead got a message that the phone's address book had been corrupted.

From that point on the "built-in address book was completely shot," and the phone could no longer send or receive short text messages or e-mail, she said.