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Archive for Thursday, November 29, 2001

THE MAG: Spinning the Web - Spam, spam, spam, spam

Columnist seeks multiple ways to avoid drowning in an ocean of junk e-mail

November 29, 2001

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I have always depended on the kindness of strangers, and these days they're being way too kind to me. Every day I receive a steady flow of electronic missives from folks who are concerned for my well-being. These fine people are interested in my financial future, hairline, job satisfaction, erectile function, breast size, penis size, waist size and access to low-cost ink jet cartridges.

Overwhelming are their tireless efforts to make sure that I'm properly informed about all the modern world has to offer me. I might not otherwise know that at my disposal are the means to take advantage of falling interest rates, to be my own boss now, make money while I sleep, boost my Windows reliability, increase my muscle strength, copy any DVD movie for free, protect myself from smallpox and anthrax naturally, wipe out debt, double my life insurance at no additional cost, turn paper piles into digital files and try it before I buy it.

Many more are committed to stimulate my sheltered imagination with "incredible pictures, voluptuous teens, hot girls and wild horses, furry naked barnyard friends, naked celeb pics, women with huge breasts and band camp biaches (free for life)."

I'm just quoting the subject lines from a small sampling of the 300 to 400 pieces of UCE (unsolicited commercial e-mail) that I receive each week. I don't dare quote from the actual content of these libidinous come-ons.

Heaven help me if I absentmindedly open one of these lurid entreaties to my baser instincts and festoon my screen with brightly colored, 30-point type expanding on the promise of its subject line. Some of these enticements are so well camouflaged that before I can collect my wits, I find I've ill-advisedly clicked on an included link. This leads to my frantic closing of the Web browser that now contains imagery more graphic than you dare imagine.

The clever Web designers of the porn industry are simply mad about browsers spawning other browsers, featuring yet another pornographic Web offering when you close the current window. Much hilarity ensues while one after another, window propagates window as you play a furious game of smut Whack-A-Mole. You win if you succeed in shutting all the windows before an observant co-worker casts a glance into your cubicle.

Serving it up

Enough already. The largesse of these profiteers is just too much for me to bear any longer. UCE, commonly known as "Spam," has become the bane of my virtual existence. From whence did this tide of garbage arise, and how can I free myself of it?

Once the word Spam referred exclusively to the Hormel company's mysterious, canned meat product and evoked comic memories (spam, spam, spam, spam, eggs, sausage and spam) of Monty Python. Now to Hormel's chagrin, its branding identity has become synonymous with this infestation of electronic junk mail. Imagine how the executives at Hostess would feel if "Twinkie" were to become the common term for, say, a neck boil.

I began to wonder, am I a crank? Does anyone else care about this? A search at www.google.com for "spam e-mail" returned more than 82,000 results, equal to the number of pieces of spam to hit my inbox so far this year.

One of the first hits listed in the search results is for www.cauce.org, the Web site for the Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial E-mail. CAUCE describes itself as "an ad hoc, all volunteer organization, created by Netizens to advocate for a legislative solution to the problem of UCE (a/k/a 'spam')."

There I found the following quote from Vint Cerf, senior vice president at MCI and an acknowledged Internet pioneer: "Spamming is the scourge of electronic mail and newsgroups on the Internet. It can seriously interfere with the operation of public services, to say nothing of the effect it may have on any individual's e-mail mail system. Spammers are, in effect, taking resources away from users and service suppliers without compensation and without authorization."

That pretty much sums it up. Bottom line, even if you can keep it out of your mailbox, it's still messing with the servers we all rely on.

Combating the plague

While CAUCE's mission is to get spam legislated into oblivion something I applaud for most of us the more immediate and self-interested concern is to identify effective strategies for blocking, or at least filtering spam at our own digital mail slot.

Here's a tip: The one thing you don't want to do is take advantage of a spammer's generous offer to remove you from their mailing list by replying to them requesting removal. At best, you'll discover the likely reality that the return e-mail address is simply bogus. At worse, you're confirming that they have a viable electronic address on their list and therefore, ultimately, on many lists.

I find that the best, most immediate band-aid is to use an e-mail client such as Eudora (www.eudora.com) that has powerful filtering tools that can be used to sort or even trash incoming e-mail based upon a variety of conditions that each item contains.

Very few spammers go to the trouble of addressing each piece of e-mail to individuals by name. I simply created a separate mailbox called SPAM, to which all incoming e-mail that doesn't have my name in the "To" field is sent. The drawback is this characteristic also describes nearly all e-mail from mailing lists and those pieces I receive via a "bcc" (blind carbon copy). It was necessary to scan the SPAM box until I could spot all my incoming mailing list material and set up amended filters for them, likewise with most of the bcc mail.

It's an imperfect solution. If I weren't concerned about losing an important piece of legitimate e-mail, I'd filter this stuff straight to the trash, rather than setting it aside to scan the subject lines. In the meantime, I'll try to maintain a sense of humor and enjoy reading teases like "Hi, I'm Wilma and I have a dream," or "How rich do you want to be?," until CAUCE can win the legislative battle.

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