Fight the Spam
by Alan Zisman (c) 2003 First published in Columbia Journal
, June 2003
As the Internet became popular in
the mid-90s, one of the metaphors kicking around was the Wild West;
that like that part of the country say a hundred and fifty years ago,
the Net was a wide-open, anything-goes sort of place without the taming
influence of law-and-order.
And like the Wild West of legend,
there was the feeling about the Internet that there was gold in them
thar hills. Money to be earned without much effort. Just stake a claim,
and untold riches could be yours.
The result was not too dissimilar
from the California (or Yukon)
gold rush. And in the hysteria, few remembered that in the real gold
rushes, few prospectors got rich. Instead, the long-term fortunes were
made by the people who stood back a ways and sold supplies to the
thousands rushing off to pan for gold. Levi Strauss, for instance,
selling canvas for tents which afterwards became denim for trousers.
So it was with the Internet. A very
very few companies have become established selling over the Net. But
less visible are the companies selling the servers and network switches
that the Internet relies on; companies like Cisco Systems, Inc. are
doing just fine, thank you.
One place the Wild West metaphor
still seems to hold true is with email spam. You know what I
mean—unwanted commercial messages promising online video clips of sex
acts, penis or breast enlargement, herbal Viagra, mortgage refinancing,
Some people get more spam than
others; some lucky email users seem to see such unwanted messages
rarely or never. But people with free accounts on popular services like
Hotmail, Yahoo, or AOL tend to be barraged with it, as are people who
have posted their email addresses on a web page or other public place.
Software routines known as spambots wander the Net, ‘harvesting’
anything that looks like a valid email address. Other software tests
out combinations of common first and last names, along with popular
domain names. Once harvested, addresses are added to databases
including hundreds of millions of email addresses, sold (ironically
enough) via spam mass mailings. Overall, spam now accounts for over 40%
of all email messages, and the percentage is growing.
While few people actually buy
anything advertised by spam, the costs of sending out millions of email
messages are so low that a low success rate can still result in a
profitable sales campaign.
Waiting for government legislation
to bring law and order to this part of the frontier? Don’t hold your
breath. It’s not for lack of trying; while there is no Canada-wide
anti-spam legislation, over two-dozen US
states have laws on the books about spam, without much effect. Spammers
are able to operate internationally, changing Internet servers and
addresses along the way, making them difficult to prosecute. In this
part of the Internet frontier, you’ll have to take the law into your
Don’t believe spammers promises to
‘click here to be removed from our list’. Rather than getting you off
their list, clicking ‘here’ usually results in more spam, by giving
them a valid email address.
Spam filtering software (both free
and commercial) isn’t perfect, but it does cut down on spam (Try a
Google search for ‘K9 spam’ to find one free program, for instance). If
you use any spam filters, though, be sure to check periodically for any
valid, wanted email that may be filtered out by mistake.
If you have to post an email address
online, get a ‘disposable’ address, which points mail to your real
address, but which you can dump when it starts getting used for spam.
Check, for instance, www.spamgourmet.com.