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This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on February 14, 2003
(Issue 2107, Where's Windows)

Are you getting more spam than ever before?

Most of us are, at least according to a recent report in the British Broadcasting Corp.

The BBC quoted a representative of Gloucester-based Message Labs, an e-mail filtering service, as predicting that by July spam will outnumber legitimate messages.

For this online resident, that's already happened. I get about twice as many spam messages per day as legitimate e-mail.

Rating e-mail annoyance

London-based Surf Control recently published a list of their Top 10 most annoying spam e-mails for 2002:

  • XXX Your Free Adult Sites Password
  • Check out our new lower prices. Many "drug" types available. (Viagra)
  • Get Cash Out! Refinance while rates are still low…
  • Urgent and Confidential (Nigerian Hoax)
  • Remote Control Car The Size of a Hot Wheel!
  • Rated #1 Best Online Casino
  • #1 Pasta Pot As Seen on TV
  • Get Out of Credit Card Debt
  • Meet Singles in Your Area
  • Copy Any DVD in One Click

I'd add a couple to that. Lead among them, just on pure chutzpah, would be "Wipe Out Junk e-Mail forever." Sending me spam on how to stop spam? Microsoft's MSN Internet service sent me a similar spam message – asking me to switch my Internet service to MSN because they can help me stop spam. They could help with my spam right now just by leaving me alone.

Our own fault

I know I've made this argument before, but it bears repeating: These low-life spammers only send us bulk e-mail because it works.

If we stop buying products advertised in spam, then eventually they'll stop. It costs money to send spam – not much, perhaps, but it's not free. If they're not making money, they'll stop sending spam.

Of course, given the lingering presence of telemarketers, I'm not real confident in our ability to show any kind of collective self-control. I believe it was H.L. Mencken or P.T. Barnum who said "Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people."

A hopeless cause?

A decade or so back, fax spam was out of control. Businesses were unable to receive legitimate faxes from their clients and suppliers because every office-supply store and lunchtime deli was faxing in advertisements.

Businesses complained about being unable to control their own phone lines and fax machines – making the argument that fax spam was a form of trespassing.

Congress listened, and passed legislation banning unsolicited fax advertisements.

It only took a few lawsuits and big-number fines against fax spammers for the rest to get the message. Today, the fax spam is a rarity.

E-mail spam, though, is a different animal. The cost-effectiveness of e-mail spamming is astronomically greater than with faxes. And while e-mail spam is an annoyance, it has not yet reached the point of saturation where businesses' e-mail servers are shutting down. It took (and still takes) far longer for a fax to transmit and free up the phone line for the next fax message than it does with e-mail.

So the business community is still split on the issue of e-mail spam – with many businesses still viewing spam as a legitimate marketing tool. Thus, the groundswell of support for legislation to ban e-mail spam isn't to the level that we had for fax spam.

Technology to the rescue

Which leaves us with technological solutions for now.

And that's a tug of war with the spammers, who have shown an uncanny knack for finding ways to fool anti-spam filters.

Finding out who sent the spam isn't really all that difficult; getting them to stop is.

As with the fax spammers, e-mail spammers can hide their tracks so that the specific account sending the message can be hidden. Fax spammers simply changed the settings on their own facsimile machine so that the wrong or no telephone number was transmitted. E-mail spammers can use masking software so that the real account can't be determined.

In either case, though, the business or service being advertised in the spam is undoubtedly behind it. I've read of companies claiming someone else is sending spam out in their name to make them look bad, but that's not an argument many of us would buy.

Still, as things stand now, even if you can prove who sent the spam, in most states there's nothing you can do about it. A handful of states have anti-spam legislation, but due to the interstate nature of most spam, it's the federal government that has jurisdiction. So only spam that is both sent and received in that state is in violation of the state law.

E-mail spam is with us for the time being. But come next July, when spam starts outnumbering legit messages, perhaps the business community will unite and get Congress to give us the tools we need to sue spammers in civil court.

That ended fax spam; it may well end e-mail spam, too.