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    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, and more.

    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 own hands.

    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,

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan