It used to be that America Online (AOL) had the market cornered on scam artists invading its system. But with the advent of free Web-based email, rip-off artists are finding new venues.
Today Yahoo officials are picking up the pieces of a scam that took place this week on the search directory's free email service.
Some time within the last two weeks, someone sent out email to users over the Net. He didn't send it from Yahoo and he didn't even target Yahoo email users specifically. He identified himself falsely as a Yahoo employee and informed each recipient that he or she had won a US Robotics 56-kbps modem from Yahoo.
The very official-sounding letter then proceeded to tell recipients that to receive the modem, they would have to supply their names, addresses, and telephone numbers as well as a credit card number to pay for shipping.
About 100 people responded to the address that the scam artist had used: Contest_Winner@yahoo.com, said Katie Burke, a Yahoo spokeswoman.
Burke would not supply exact numbers, but she said some of those who responded sent in credit card numbers and personal information. Others just asked more questions, she said.
Yahoo found out about the email yesterday, the day after Yahoo had received a flood of publicity from a hack into its system.
Today, she said, Yahoo is sending out email to all those who responded to the scam, telling them that the contest was a fraud and suggesting that anyone who supplied credit card information contact the companies immediately.
The email being sent out also recommends that users "remain cautious in sharing information with anyone who solicits you via e-mail" and lists several warning signs for scam artists, such as receiving a letter from someone claming to be a company representative and asking for information.
When Yahoo started its free email service earlier this month, company executives realized that a Yahoo.com email address had the potential to be abused, Burke said. But ultimately, the company decided that the advantages of having Yahoo.com email outweighed the risks.
Companies are increasingly offering free Web-based email as a way to extend their brand names over the Net and also as a way to lure Netizens to their sites more often.
While Internet scams are as old as the Net itself, companies attracting an increasingly mainstream, nontechnical crowd are finding themselves having to fend off would-be scam artists who prey on sometimes naive users.
AOL, which targets mainstream consumers, is constantly putting out warnings to users alerting them of possible problems and reminding them that they will never be asked by AOL representatives to reveal their passwords. But despite the constant warnings to never give out credit card numbers or accept file attachments in email from strangers, members still do it.
People who send out junk email also have said they specifically target AOL because members tend to be more naive and more accepting of spam.