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Spam gets religion

E-mail recipients are increasingly being offered religious salvation through bulk, unsolicited e-mail.

The growth area in unsolicited e-mail is now messages that contain religious themes. And the bad news is that unlike commercial spam, it's not illegal.

E-mail recipients are increasingly being offered religious salvation through the power of spam, according to security company MessageLabs.

The antispam company has intercepted a large number of spiritual e-mails in the last month. The company says the e-mails are legal because they don't plug products, just religious ideals.

"It's on the rise for a number of reasons," said Matt Sergeant, antispam technologist for MessageLabs. "It is exempt from spam laws, and it's legal according to most national laws, including Can-Spam. It's not commercial, and that's interesting in a way, because there is a cost, yet no financial return. But they may believe there is a spiritual return."

One of the latest e-mails has the subject line "Only believe." The body of the e-mail is:

"Eternity is a really long time. If you or someone close to you has not accepted God please do so tody (sic).

"The following prayer can save you or someone that you love.

"Say, 'Oh God, save my soul. I'm so sorry that I have sinned against you, but I have come home. I will serve you, Lord, the rest of my life. Deliver me from all my sinful habits. Set me free! I do believe Jesus died on Calvary for me, and I believe in His blood, that there is power in His blood to wash away all my sins, all my sins!' Say, 'Come into my heart, Jesus; come on in, Jesus. Come on in!' If you meant it, He has come. If you meant it, Jesus is yours. Start reading your Bible, pray daily and believe that somebody's listening;

"His name is Jesus."

However, similar mail has preyed on victims' gullibility, using variations of the Nigerian 419 scam. One sender sought a "better Christian individual" to receive $18.6 million for religious purposes, so long as the recipient of the mail could put up some money up-front.

MessageLabs said it believed users would see more religious-oriented bulk e-mail in the run-up to Christmas.

"It's been around for a long time but has tended to be below the radar," Sergeant said. "This time, there's been a large spam run, so we can expect to see more of the same. It's becoming so cheap to do; even if you have little money, you can still send millions of messages."

Dan Ilett of ZDNet UK reported from London.