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'Blank Message' E-Mail May Be Spam

Connect Check out past columns at www.latimes.com/techq&a.

January 31, 2002|DAVID COLKER and ELIZABETH DOUGLASS | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Question: I received an e-mail from someone I've never heard of saying that she had gotten a "blank message" from me. She went on to say, "Not sure I know you, but try again if you want."

Is this some kind of junk e-mail scam? Should I send her a return e-mail to say I had not sent her a message?

Answer: Dubious congratulations are in order. You seem to be the target of a new wrinkle in junk e-mail. It's so new that experts in the field are not sure of its purpose.

"We first started getting reports about blank message e-mail a few days ago," said Scott Hazen Mueller, chairman of the Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial E-mail. The group runs the spam.abuse.net Web site that provides information about junk e-mail, suggestions on how to fight it and updates on legislation concerning the topic.

He speculated that the e-mail was a scheme to identify legitimate e-mail addresses. The sender probably sent that message to a huge number of addresses. "Some of our anti-spammers got it," he said.

If the mail went through, then the spammer knew the address was legitimate, or "live." Lists of live address can be sold to bulk e-mailers at a premium.

On the other hand, if the e-mail resulted in a computer-generated "bounce back" reply that the address was not valid, it could be discarded.

"We are still looking into it," he said.

In any case, as with all suspected spam, the best policy is not to reply.

Q: With the continual rate increases from AT&T, MCI WorldCom, Sprint and other well-known long-distance companies, where should customers look for good rates?

A: Increasingly, the best long-distance prices come from reliable, lesser-known carriers such as Capsule Communications, Uni-Tel Communications and PowerNet Global, or PNG.

These companies don't have the costly marketing and overhead costs of their larger rivals, so they can charge less and still make a profit. The baseline cost for a domestic long-distance call is about 3 cents a minute.

Shoppers still must keep an eye on the fine print for charges and fees. Be sure to check the universal service fee. But the fact that you've never heard of a company is no longer reason enough not to consider it.

Long-distance carrier Univance, for example, charges 4.9 cents a minute for both in-state and interstate long-distance calls, 24 hours a day, every day. Customers must have a minimum of $3 worth of calls, and if not, they pay the difference in a fee. The company charges 8.25% for the federal universal service fee (compared with AT&T's 11.5%). It charges for a 30-second call and then bills in six-second increments.

Taking into account the fees, the rate from Univance is 5.3 cents a minute.

Check out your options at www.abtolls.com, www.10-10 phonerates.com, www.phone -bill-busters.com, www.lowermy bills.com, www.ucan.org and www.consumer-action.org.

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