Beware of the next electronic greeting card you receive. It may not be quite so friendly.

An e-card scam is circulating, conning people into clicking onto a phony Web site where they can download a virus or enable an attacker to snatch up their address book to spam their co-workers and friends. MessageLabs Inc., a British company with U.S. headquarters in Minneapolis, has put out an alert, warning users to stay clear of the latest online scam.

''It's a spam scam, really,'' says Angela Hauge, technical director at MessageLabs. ''The email itself does not contain a virus but it directs people to a Web site where they can download a virus... or they might grab up everyone in your address book and filter that back to the Web site. Then they can use all those company addresses for a virus attack or spam.''


MessageLabs warns users that the scam, at first, comes off as an actual email greeting, which are becoming increasingly common, even on corporate accounts. The email often says, ''I sent you a greeting. Please pick it up by clicking on the link below.'' The Web site originally mentioned in the email, according to MessageLabs, was hosted by FriendGreetings.com. But MessageLabs also has seen variations on the original email that contains links to several similar Web sites, such as cool-downloads.com or .net, and friend-cards.com or .net.

Hauge says it's fairly simple to distinguish a real e-card from the scam.

''When you go to a greeting card Web site, you should be able to view your greeting automatically,'' she explains. ''You shouldn't have to download anything. If you're asked to do that, don't and get out of there.''