The federal agency charged with protecting consumers from Internet scams now finds itself wrapped up in one.
Identity thieves have sent thousands of bogus e-mails purporting to be from the Federal Trade Commission, as well as the IRS and Justice Department, in an attempt to trick consumers into divulging personal financial information.
The agencies are the latest institutions to be exploited in "phishing" scams, long the bane of large banks and credit card issuers.
Analysts who track online crime say that while financial institutions are still the most commonly hijacked brands, the use of federal agencies in the hoaxes is increasing and reflects criminals' desire to take advantage of the familiarity and authority of various government departments.
Phishing typically involves sending fraudulent e-mails that include links directing recipients to fake Web sites where they are asked to input sensitive data. Phishers may also include attachments that, when clicked, secretly install "spyware" that can capture personal information and send it to third parties.
Criminal gangs in the United States and overseas use the information to steal thousands of dollars from consumers or to sell their identities in what experts describe as an underground economy surrounding identity theft.
The FTC said in June that corporate and banking executives, among other consumers, have received fake e-mails with spyware attachments purporting to be from the agency.
The Treasury Department said it has received more than 23,000 complaints about IRS-related phishing scams since an investigative arm of the department began tracking them in 2005.
The scams have been "unprecedented both in terms of sophistication and the volume of reports we have received," said J. Russell George, treasury inspector general for tax administration, in a statement.
Government officials said recipients of such e-mails should be suspicious of their origin for one simple reason: Federal agencies rarely communicate with citizens by e-mail.