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An explosion of spam

Hot on the Web

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on May 17, 2002
(Issue 2020, Virtual Fraud)

I've been dabbling online since my college days at San Diego State in the early '80s, and have been online continuously since '87 when Andy "Windows for Dummies" Rathbone and I roomed together at the beach and shared a single 1,200 bps modem to call local BBSs.

And yet, through almost two decades of being online, I'd largely escaped the deluge of spam I'd read and heard about.

Now, to be sure, I rarely posted in Usenet newsgroups – a practically guaranteed method of getting your name on all the e-mail spam lists.

Oh, sure, like everybody, I got spam – nearly every day. But it was usually only one or two messages, which were easily deleted.

But the last few months, for the first time the spam in my in-box almost always outnumbers the legitimate messages.

And it's annoying the heck out of me.

It was Congress or the Federal Communications Commission that banned unsolicited faxes, I believe; they ought to be able to do the same for unsolicited e-mail.

Commercial implications

Which doesn't mean e-mail has to be banned as a method for businesses to legitimately market themselves and advertise. Clearly, the Internet is already an important component of our economy – and is only likely to become more so.

The government is rightly wary about doing anything to discourage development of economic activity on the 'Net.

But banning spam shouldn't have to intrude on legitimate online business activity.

There are already ways for businesses to build legitimate lists of e-mail addresses of their customers and potential customers. Most of us have already seen these in action; many of us have even signed up for promotional e-mails.

By providing incentives to customers at point of purchase or on the web to sign up for e-mail alerts, businesses can still reach those of us who are interested in learning more about their products or services. There are a handful of businesses that I'm interested in enough that I've signed up for their e-mail lists. Some days I'm too busy to read them, but I don't classify them as spam – or mutter darkly when they appear in my mail.


Well, I opted in for these notices. Further, they're clearly marked as to who sent them, the subject line corresponds to the contents of the message, and there are clear instructions on removing myself from their e-mail list – instructions that actually work and don't simply confirm to a spammer that my e-mail address is still active.

Fighting back

The spammers are a nasty breed of animal, but there are tools available to fight back.

For starters, be careful where you submit your e-mail address – and where it's posted. I have mine splattered all over my Web site, where spammers' robots can simply find it and add it to their lists. I'll be fixing that shortly, though – adding "nospam" to the e-mail link on my pages. Folks who click on the e-mail links will have to manually remove the "nospam" from for messages to actually reach me, but it's to the point that it's become necessary for me to add this small hassle to my visitors' lives. Apologies to all in advance.

There are also sites out there that give you the information you need to try to get rid of – or at least thin out – the wave of spam in your mailbox. One good one is the Death to Spam site. Another is Elsop's Anti-Spam Page. From this site, you can get to several dozen more – plus find links to the latest news on proposed laws and bills to regulate or even ban spam.

Given the ease of selling e-mail address lists and the difficulty of tracking spammers down, it seems unlikely that we'll ever see the end of spam – but there may be a time when it's a rarity, like the unrequested menu from the new deli that still shows up in the fax machine despite laws against fax spam.