FTC Measures False Claims Inherent in Random Spam

At Least One Form of Deception Found in Sixty-Six Percent of Random Sample

For Release

In a random sample of 1,000 pieces of unsolicited commercial e-mail (UCE) from three Federal Trade Commission (FTC) data sets, 66 percent contained false "From" lines, "Subject" lines, or message text. The study, which was conducted by the Division of Marketing Practices, is the first extensive review of the likely truth or falsity of claims appearing in UCE.

The spam messages examined fell into eight general categories: Investment/Business Opportunity; Adult; Finance; Product/Services; Health; Computer/Internet; Leisure/Travel; Education; and a catch-all category, "Other," for types of offers that appeared infrequently. Investment/Business Opportunity offers accounted for 20 percent of the spam studied, the majority being work-at-home, franchise, chain letter, and other non-securities offers. Three categories combined - Adult, Finance, and Investment/Business Opportunity - comprised 55 percent of the random spam sample analyzed by the FTC staff.

The analysis of the "From" line in each UCE message revealed that 33 percent of the spam messages contained indicators of falsity. Nearly half of the spam with false "From" information, or 46 percent, claimed to be from someone with a personal relationship with the recipient. In all types of these messages, senders frequently obscured their identities in the "From" line.

Falsity in the "Subject" line was less prevalent, with 22 percent of the sample studied containing information that appeared to be false. Of the sample of spam containing misleading subject lines, however, 42 percent misrepresented that the sender had a personal relationship with the recipient. While false "Subject" lines were found in all types of offers, more than one-third of "adult" offers appeared to misrepresent the content of the message in the subject line.

All types of spam in the sample analyzed by FTC staff contained indicators of falsity in the "From" or "Subject" line, with incidence rates ranging from a low of approximately 36 percent for education-related UCE to a high of approximately 53 percent for finance-related spam. Forty-four percent of spam analyzed contained hallmarks of falsity in either the "From" line or "Subject" line.

The incidence of likely false claims in the text of spam varied considerably among types of offers. Approximately 40 percent of the UCE messages reviewed however, had at least one indication of falsity. The highest category for signs of falsity, 90 percent, was the sample that advertised investment and business opportunities.

Other topics generating a significant percentage of messages with indicators of falsity included those involving health (48%) and leisure/travel (47%). Common "health" spam messages advertised weight-loss products and intimacy aids; common "leisure/travel" spam messages offered prize and vacation promotions.

When analyzed together, falsity rates in the "From" or Subject" line or in the message text ranged from a low of 42 percent for spam involving the sale of products and services to 96 percent for spam offering investment and business opportunities. Overall, 66 percent of spam analyzed contained false "From" lines, "Subject" lines, or message text.

Several states have enacted laws in recent years requiring senders of spam to begin every subject line with the phrase "ADV:" (an abbreviation used to identify advertising) in messages sent to recipients of those states. The FTC staff's study of a sample of messages found that compliance with this labeling requirement was sparse, accounting for approximately two percent of the spam analyzed.

The spam study revealed that UCE messages rarely request recipients to submit personal information, but those that do typically show signs of falsity.

To help determine the scope of sexually explicit images contained in spam, the FTC staff analyzed the prevalence of pornographic imagery in the random sample. In the 17 percent of spam advertising pornographic Web sites, "adult images" were included in the body of the message. In total, 41 percent of spam containing "adult imagery" contained false information in their "From" or "Subject" lines.

For this study, the FTC staff analyzed UCE from three sources - the UCE Database (approximately 450 sample messages), the Harvest Database (approximately 450 sample messages), and spam received in official FTC inboxes (approximately 100 sample messages). The UCE Database and Harvest Database samples were drawn from messages received during the last six months of 2002. The UCE messages were collected using random selection protocols established by the FTC Bureau of Economics. To enable future internal analysis of spam not blocked by the FTC's internal computer systems, the data sample was supplemented with 100 pieces of randomly selected UCE received by FTC employees during March 2003.

The UCE Database contains spam forwarded to the Commission by members of the public. Consumers currently contribute about 130,000 messages per day to the UCE Database, and a total of 11,184,139 messages were forwarded to the FTC's UCE Database during the time period from which the study's sample was drawn. The volume of messages in the UCE Database makes it likely that this data source provides a fairly representative look at the types of messages that many consumers receive. Nonetheless, the e-mail in the database may be skewed because contributors are likely to be knowledgeable about spam or have a negative view of UCE.

The Harvest Database consists of 3,651 messages received by FTC undercover e-mail accounts that were established as part of its e-mail harvesting study. As part of the Harvest study, the FTC and its law enforcement partners established 250 e-mail accounts and posted these email addresses to 175 different locations on the Internet. Specific e-mail addresses were posted on newsgroups, message boards, chat rooms, instant messaging services, e-mail service directories, web pages, domain name "whois" information, online resume services, and online dating services. The FTC staff then tracked e-mail received by each of the 250 e-mail accounts.

Copies of the report "False Claims in Spam," are available at the FTC's website www.ftc.gov/spam and also from the FTC's Consumer Response Center, Room 130, 600 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20580. The FTC works for the consumer to prevent fraudulent, deceptive, and unfair business practices in the marketplace and to provide information to help consumers spot, stop, and avoid them. To file a complaint or to get free information on consumer issues, call toll-free, 1-877-FTC-HELP, or use the complaint form at www.ftc.gov. The FTC enters Internet, telemarketing, identity theft, and other fraud-related complaints into Consumer Sentinel, a secure, online database available to hundreds of civil and criminal law enforcement agencies in the U.S. and abroad.

Contact Information

Media Contact:
Cathy MacFarlane,
Office of Public Affairs

202-326-3657
Staff Contact:
Eileen Harrington, Daniel Salsburg or Michael Goodman,
Bureau of Consumer Protection

202-326-3127, 202-326-3402 or 202-326-3071