The $40 billion appropriated by Congress to track down and punish those responsible for the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks will surely be money well spent.

But if there's a little left over, it should be used to prosecute the anonymous lowlifes who have twisted the Internet to their own fraudulent uses in hopes of profiting from America's pain.

Less than 24 hours after hijacked planes crashed into the two World Trade Center towers, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field, spammers began sending out unsolicited e-mail messages hoping to cash in on the tragedies. Some of them tried to pawn off phone cards preprinted with images of New York's skyline New York's former skyline as "commemorative." Others directed recipients to a Web page that posted a few links to relief funds amid an array of banner ads and product pitches.

The most virulent messages, though, have tried to attract contributions to phony relief funds. One such message linked to a Web page that claimed it was collecting money for the Red Cross, but the site was unaffiliated with that organization.

"From everything we've seen, those donations were simply intended to line the spammers' pockets," said John Mozena, vice president of the Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial E-mail. One scam was shut down after the site's Internet service provider was notified, but others may still be out there.

Spammers have long been considered an unsavory lot. The unwanted e-mail messages they send by the tends of thousands are an inconvenience to those who receive them and a significant drain on the resources necessary to keep the Internet running. But the tastelessness of this latest campaign caught even anti-spam activists off guard.

Reaching new lows

"I think we all thought we'd lost the capability to be shocked by anything that spammers do or say. Unfortunately, we were wrong," Mozena said. "Especially when it comes to the fraudulent donation sites, I don't think it's going too far to call that evil."

The American Red Cross has warned people to be wary of false fund-raisers on its behalf. The agency accepts donations through its own site (redcross.org) and has authorized Amazon.com, Yahoo and AOL Time Warner to help raise money for relief efforts.

It's perfectly safe to contribute money online so long as you do so through those sites. But it's best to surf there directly rather than following links included in chain e-mail messages, since those links may lead to bogus sites. Even if they point to authentic Web pages, using them could expose you to other charity-related scams because your response could be tracked.

Thankfully, spammers weren't the only ones making use of e-mail in the wake of the tragedies. With phone lines jammed and cellular service unavailable in some parts of New York, some residents turned to e-mail to communicate with worried friends and relatives who watched the horrors play out on their television screens.

Internet service in most parts of the country was largely unaffected by the devastation. But as rescue workers began digging through the rubble, network administrators, programmers and other computer technicians began volunteering their services to help rebuild communications networks destroyed in the attacks.

Users of an e-mail list run by the North American Network Operators Group offered to provide services ranging from the remote configuration of servers to more hands-on work in the city itself. Some New York Internet service providers relied on equipment in the World Trade Center, while others are apparently suffering from a lack of reliable power or an overabundance of wreckage-related dust that is clogging air filters and causing machines to overheat.

"People are really just struggling to keep things going right now," one list subscriber wrote. "Nerds can apply nerd Band-Aids and nerd tourniquets if need be, but you've got to have access to a big pile of nerds to handle all of the (stuff) that's likely going down right now."

Those so-called nerds, like most people I know, want to do what they can to help. If spammers are indeed human and I'm beginning to wonder they ought to lay off the "send" button and do something to ease people's pain rather than trying to exploit it.

To contact syndicated columnist Joe Salkowski, you can e-mail him at joes@azstarnet.com or write to him c/o Tribune Media Services, Inc., 435 N. Michigan Ave., Suite 1400, Chicago, IL 60611.

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