Spammers are trying to sell you sex and money -- and that has made mortgage-related pitches one of the largest categories of unsolicited commercial e-mail.
"Spam capitalizes on what's going on today, on what people are talking about," said Frank M. Gorman, a lawyer with the firm Bryan Cave in Washington and a former Federal Trade Commission staffer who worked with e-mail marketing issues. And these days, with interest rates low but rising, people are talking about mortgages.
Experts who count these things say the three top types of spam are pornography, sex drugs such as Viagra knockoffs and mortgage offers. While pornography-related e-mail messages still constitute the largest volume of spam, mortgage-related spam increased 42 percent in 2004 compared with last year, making it the most rapidly growing category, according to research by NetIQ Corp., an e-mail content-filtering service in San Jose.
Mortgage spam has grown in part because, it seems, some people actually pay attention to it. "There is an acceptance of mortgage spam by many end users," said Jim McGrath, senior director for security at NetIQ. "It's less offensive than pornography. It may be troublesome, but it is not offensive to the average consumer. And for spammers, it has a potentially higher response rate than pharmaceutical spam."
Some people find it more than troublesome. Bonnie Russell, of California, calls e-mail mortgage spam a "form of torture."
Mortgage spam is also considered a scourge by high-profile online mortgage marketers, such as LendingTree.com and GetSmart.com, whose radio, TV and Internet advertisements seem to be drowned out by the digital detritus of the spammers.
"To be honest, we understand why spam exists," said Jeffrey Lyons, vice president and general manager of GetSmart.com, a sister company of LendingTree.com, in Charlotte. "We wish it didn't. It makes things harder for us. We try to stay disassociated from it."
The federal government has sued mortgage spammers, trying to halt the most fraudulent practices.
In December, the FTC reached a settlement with the principals of an online operation, 30 Minute Mortgage Inc., that had advertised 3.95 percent, 30-year mortgages, hoping to obtain sensitive information, including Social Security numbers, from consumers for resale.
"The settlements also bar the defendants from using or benefiting from personal information that was deceptively collected from consumers," according to the FTC's statement about the settlement.
But Gorman, the former FTC lawyer, said the government does not have the resources to track down other rogues who are engaging in similar online-mortgage practices.
That means that in the long term, the problem will probably have to be solved by the private sector, through technological and behavioral means.
"The idea of 'closed networks' is increasingly being talked about," Lyons said. "The notion is that consumers will in the future only receive communications from a trusted party."
"Let's say LendingTree does a deal with America Online, and AOL always lets through e-mail that comes from LendingTree. But e-mail from those companies that AOL has never heard of get sent to a bulk mail folder," he said.