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"Nigerian letter' scam evolves

By now, most people have received or heard about "Nigerian letters," those missives by mail, fax and e-mail from fictional government officials or their widows or bankers in all sorts of countries, offering you a huge chunk of cash if you will help them get money out of the country.

While there has been a big increase in the volume of those letters in the past year, scam artists _ possibly the same ones sending the letters _ have fashioned a new twist to get people's money, said Rick Harlow, a Secret Service special agent who investigates these proposals.

Jeff and Shawn Mosch, a Minneapolis couple who were taken for $7,200, started a Web site, Scam Victims United ( united/), to tell people about the scheme. In essence, the scammers target people trying to sell items on the Internet. The "buyers" send cashier's checks to supposedly cover the cost of the item and shipping and ask the sellers to wire money to a third party who is handling the deal. The cashier's checks are bogus, and the sellers are out the money they sent.

Harlow said sellers in cases that the Secret Service has investigated are offered more than the product they are selling is worth, which appeals to sellers' greed. And the buyers' reasons for wanting to send up to five or six times the value of the item for the excess to be wired back to the buyer seem plausible, Harlow said.

A Google approach to advertising

Google Inc. is trying to build upon the Web's most popular search engine to create the Internet's most powerful advertising vehicle.

Google will draw upon its sophisticated search technology to display the Web links of advertisers peddling products and services related to the content displayed on a Web page.

As an example, a Web user reading about auto transmissions at last week also saw a stack of Google-generated Web links offering transmission coolers from advertiser and used transmissions from another sponsor,

The technique of making ads more relevant to a Web page's content is similar to the method that Google and rivals such as Overture Services Inc. use to package paid links with words entered into search engines.

The advertising-driven search results, known as "pay for performance," have developed into one of the Web's most profitable niches.

Instead of paying a flat rate, advertisers essentially bid for the right to be displayed in specific categories. Advertisers say the auction-style pricing provides customer leads at lower rates than other traditional marketing channels, such as the Yellow Pages.

Pay-for-performance search ads are expected to generate $1.5-billion to $2-billion this year, up from $100-million in 2000.

Labels back Apple online music service

Top executives at the major record companies have finally found an online music service that makes them excited about the digital future, according to the Los Angeles Times.

The new service, developed by Apple Computer Inc., offers Macintosh users many of the same capabilities that are available from services previously endorsed by the labels. But the Apple offering won over music executives because it makes buying and downloading music as simple and nontechnical as buying a book from, the Times reported.

That ease of use has music executives optimistic that the Apple service will be an effective antidote to surging piracy on the Internet. Other legitimate music services have cumbersome pricing plans and are more technically complex than unauthorized online services, such as the KaZaa file-sharing network.

The new service would be available only to users of Apple's Macintosh line of computers and iPod portable music players, who have been largely overlooked by the legitimate online music services. Although no licensing deals have been announced, the Times reported, at least four of the five major record companies have committed their music. The service could be launched as early as next month.

Xbox boosts number of online players

Microsoft Corp., which is investing $2-billion in its Xbox video game machine, said it has attracted more than 350,000 subscribers to a service that lets users compete against each other over the Internet.

The Xbox Live service was started in November. Microsoft sells two games, a kit that allows users to connect and a one-year subscription to Xbox live for $49.95 to promote the service, Microsoft spokesman Lincoln Davis said. The company hasn't yet determined how much it will cost after the promotion, he said.

Microsoft created the online service as a way of attracting consumers away from rival Sony Corp.'s PlayStation 2, the bestselling video game console that was released a year before the Xbox. Since they went on sale in August, Sony has sold 500,000 adapters in North America that allow PlayStation 2 users to play on line, Sony spokeswoman Molly Smith said.

_ Compiled from Times wires