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'Tis the season to be ... wary of e-cards

Before you click on that holiday greeting, learn how you may be helping a hacker or spammer.

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Kathy Tyson's e-mail box is already reeling from the holidays. Soon after Thanks­giving, this real estate agent from Smyrna, Tenn., received three e-cards in the same week – all from strangers.

"By the time I got the second one, it was pretty clear that these were just spam," she says. "I can't prove that they were sent by bad people, but they definitely weren't friendly sources. I just deleted them."

Smart move, say experts.

E-cards can spread cheer, cheesy humor, and, unfortunately, computer viruses. Spammers and hackers continually shift their strategies to match the calendar. And this time of year, they often hide behind season's greetings.

While malicious e-cards are not a new problem, their numbers have grown, their tactics have improved, and their victims are still falling for it.

Even Ms. Tyson admits that she was duped by that first e-mail, clicking on a link that promised to load the card. "But I think my computer blocked it – thankfully," she says.

The phony e-mail could have led to anything from a shopping website desperate for advertising to malevolent software eager to sneak onto her PC.

Legitimate e-cards do exist, of course.

This year, 500 million authentic online greetings have been sent worldwide, according to estimates from the Greeting Card Association. American Greetings, the largest e-card publisher, saw a 23 percent rise in the number of electronic messages sent this year compared with 2006.

Paper cards still outnumber their electronic cousins 20 to 1. And Hallmark spokeswoman Julie O'Dell says the company has yet to see e-cards eat away at its traditional business.

Nonetheless, just as mailboxes fill up with catalogues and holiday cards each December, e-mail in-boxes can expect a similar flood of spam.


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