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Spammers Try To Cash In On Pope

In the greedy world of spam e-mail and electronic fraud, nothing is sacred — not even the death of Pope John Paul II.

Spammers are using the pope's passing to entice the Roman Catholic faithful worldwide into a bogus moneymaking scheme by luring them with an offer of free books about the pontiff, a British-based computer security expert warned Tuesday.

The spam campaign was detected Friday — the day John Paul was laid to rest after a funeral that drew dozens of world leaders and hundreds of thousands of pilgrims — said Graham Cluley, a senior technology consultant with London's SophosLabs PLC.

"Sadly, the spammers wasted no time at all," he told The Associated Press.

Experts have not yet been able to trace the source of the offer, which begins with unsolicited e-mails sent to people offering a free collection of books about John Paul if they click on a link included in the message.

Curious consumers are then taken to a site which apologizes that the books are not available in their location, and are automatically redirected to another site offering advice on "free moneymaking secrets," Cluley said.

That site makes no mention of the pope.

The campaign is similar to a February scheme that capitalized on the huge interest in the latest "Harry Potter" novel, said Cluley, whose company analyzes spam and helps businesses stop it from streaming into their e-mail.

"Spam is starting to evolve," says CBSNews.com Technology Consultant Larry Magid. "There's less pornography and sales pitches and more fraudulent spam designed to trick people into revealing confidential information."

The use of the pope's death as a hook to defraud consumers is part of a trend linking spam to news of national or international interest, prompting people to open e-mail they ordinarily might delete.

Experts say there was a flurry of spam offers of bogus goods and services tied to last year's U.S. presidential election and pop star Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction" at the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show.

"It's incredible that these e-mails began on the day of the pope's funeral," Cluley said. "But the crowds on the streets of Rome suggested there was a market. There are a lot of people who might want to honor the pope's memory by buying books about him, especially if they were unable to make it to Rome."

"The spammers can make so much money that they've got no morals at all. When they send a million e-mails, they know some people will go for the deal, and they only need a tiny percentage of people to do it," he said. "They're right down in the gutter. This was so tasteless."

It was unclear Tuesday how many people might have been defrauded.

"Just about everyone hates spam but people are starting to adapt to it just as they adapt to other annoyances in life," said Magid. "Also, there are now software programs and e-mail services that do a pretty good job at filtering out junk mail.

Last week in Virginia, 30-year-old Jeremy Jaynes was sentenced to nine years in prison after being convicted in the United States' first felony case against illegal spamming for bombarding Internet users with junk e-mails. Jaynes gained notoriety for peddling sham products, including a site that masqueraded as a source of refunds for Federal Express overnight mail customers.