Choking on spam

Aug. 7, 2003
Ancient chronicles tell us that the first person to send spam over the Internet worked for Digital Equipment Corp.

He was a computer salesman who in 1978 sent unsolicited advertisements for a new computer to all western addresses on ARPANet. Not much is known about subsequent spammers except that in January 1994, someone sent a message about the end of the world to every address on Usenet. The following April, lawyers sent advertisements for their services to all addresses on Usenet.

If your e-mail address is anywhere on a Web page, you will get spam. Spammers use software that scans Web pages and looks for words that include the @ symbol. When you visit a Web site, your address might be lifted and sold to spammers. Around 80% of incoming e-mail at America Online is spam.

One piece of spam I received said it was sent to me because my name was on a list of people involved in a home business or looking for one. For the life of me, I can't imagine what sort of Web site I could have visited to get my name on such a list.

Spam usually gives you the option to click on an icon where you can "opt out" and stop getting messages. Experts advise against doing this. Since spammers are the bottom feeders of the business world, asking them to stop mailing you identifies your address as valid, and it will end up on even more lists. Ditto about sending blistering messages to spammers asking them to stop hounding you. They will ignore your request and, again, note that your address is a live one worthy of being spread to more lists.

One reason everyone gets so much spam is that it is cheap. A few months ago, I received spam from a mailing house encouraging me to use their service. It was from a Candice Spangler at [email protected], if you can believe that any such person or Internet address exists. Spammers, of course, rarely use their real names or real return addresses that can be traced. They don't want to get spam.

At any rate, Candice offered to send 250,000 messages for $299. Or she would send half a million messages for $499. If that isn't enough, she would send 1 million messages for $899, or 3 million for $1,499. It is hard to imagine any other way to cause people so much aggravation so cheaply.

Another reason we get so much spam is that it works. There are idiots who actually respond to it. One response per thousand e-mails is considered a huge success, and those in the know say you can make a good buck with a response as low as one in 10,000 mailings. Companies selling Viagra and similar pharmaceuticals pay spammers by the sale, typically paying $60 for every $150 order.

There are online clubs for spammers offering business leads and spamming tools. One of the tools is software designed to get around filters that Internet services set up to stop spam. One such filter stops bulk mailings having the same subject line. Spammers defeat this with software that automatically adds a string of random letters after the subject. This makes a filter think the subject lines are all different.

The good news is that there are hacker vigilantes who attack spammers with their own weapons - software and the Internet. Spammers use complex systems to hide their identities, but hackers find ways to trace them, inundating them with thousands of repetitive messages that are difficult to trace. It is a dose of their own medicine, which they find quiet disagreeable.

- Ronald Khol, Editor

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