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Weeding the Web

Web experts like to point out that their medium simply reflects the interests, intellects, and, yes, morals of the people using it.

From the darkest corners of that mix comes a type of cyber fraud known as the "snake-in-the-grass scam." This ploy, a favorite of pornographers, involves scanning the Web for sites that have certain frequently searched key words - for example, "children," "videos," "games." The Web pages thus located are then copied and stored in the scam artists' computers.

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The "search engines" used by Web surfers find the stolen pages along with the real things. But the pilfered Web pages have been reprogrammed to direct unsuspecting people not to what is described by the search engine blurb, but to "adult" pages dealing in lewd images.

People intending to explore video games for children, for instance, may instead find pornography. And when they try to exit, using "home" or "back" options, they simply get shunted to another porn site.

The "pagejackers" have roamed widely, snatching pages from businesses, universities, and even government agencies like the US Geological Survey. One such operation, run by a computer hacker from Portugal and a pornography company from Australia, affected some 25 million Web pages. Even if 1 percent of these Web-napped viewers then look at ads on the site or pay fees, that's a lot of money.

The Federal Trade Commission is hot on the trail of such frauds, which it sees as illegally interfering with commerce. The agency just opened a new Internet lab to concentrate on cyber abuses. It's none too soon.

Unfortunately, pornographers have often been the dubious leaders in designing innovative ways of using the Web - and making money at it. Other types of businesses, even small retailers, may try to adopt this viewer-diverting trick.

Given the Web's wide-open, largely unpoliced nature, the potential for scams is huge. Enforcers like the FTC will have to work hard to catch up with those intent on deceiving the Web-surfing public.

Meanwhile, Web users can be alert to what may be going on when their searching goes disgustingly awry.

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Parents, especially, must continue to monitor their children's Internet browsing. Those who operate legitimate Web pages, as well as search-engine companies, can bolster defenses. And improved filtering capabilities will someday keep pornography away from electronic addresses where it's not wanted.

This is all part of bringing some much-needed civility to the wide-open and still-very-young Web.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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