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Containing it has definitely proven to be tricky. Such e-mail spam messages are spreading like wildfire, helped by Trojan viruses, which can assemble armies of “zombie” computers to disseminate spam on command.

To make matters worse, more stock spammers are embedding their messages in digital images, making them invisible to text-based software filters. And even filters than can scan images for digital signatures are easy to fool.

“By making small alterations in the pixels of the image, they’re able to obfuscate the image,” says Ron O’Brien, senior security analyst at Sophos. Spam containing images accounted for 35.9 percent of all spam in June, up from 18.2 percent just six months earlier, according to the company.

“The thing that surprises most people is that the company [whose stock is being touted] is often not aware their shares are being manipulated in this way,” adds O’Brien. “They’re often just as much the victims.”

Gordon LeBlanc Jr., founder and chief executive officer of Phoenix-based PetroSun Drilling, describes himself as just such a victim. He says he had never heard of stock spamming until a spammer began touting shares in his oilfield services company in early July. Since then, the complaints have been rolling in.

“I’m not a happy camper,” says LeBlanc, who was hit most recently in mid August. “It’s been going on sporadically for about a month and a half. It’s very frustrating. It seems they’ll do it for every press release we put out.”

Like dozens of other companies listed with the Pink Sheets, PetroSun was forced to issue a press release explaining that its shares were being manipulated by an unknown third-party spam campaign.

The problem has become so widespread that Pink Sheets LLC issued a proposal to the Securities and Exchange Commission in April urging the regulator to impose stricter rules on stock spammers, such as forcing them to reveal their identity and intent in e-mails and requiring the spammers to provide the issuer of the stock with a copy of their promotional e-mail. The SEC has yet to take action.

But O’Brien says disclosure rules will never work, largely because most spammers won’t comply with the law. He’s also not so sure that better information campaigns will enlighten the public enough to stop the effectiveness of stock spamming.

“This is about greed. Frankly, this is a form of gambling,” says O’Brien, adding that there will always been a percentage of the population attracted to a pump-and-dump scheme in hopes of beating the odds.

But Zittrain points out that even gamblers have rules to protect them, and that it may be time for regulators to consider more aggressive – even paternalistic – applications of the law to protect those more susceptible to stock spam.

One possibility is to introduce steps, or “speed bumps,” in the brokerage trading process that would prevent the recipient of a stock tout from immediately acting on it, says Zittrain, adding that such a “cooling off” period might make a person think twice.

Brokerages could also be supplied with a “neighborhood watch” service that alerts them to the most recently discovered stock spam campaigns. If a client calls and places an order for a recently touted stock, a red flag goes up and by law the brokerage intervenes with a warning.

“It wouldn’t be that difficult to set up such an early warning system,” says Zittrain.

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