Self-defence against E-mail overload: spam dam

Each day when I check my E-mail, it’s the usual stuff: a pile of business correspondence, a couple of notes from my friends in the United States, a handful of postings from several mailing lists I belong to and some mail with headings such as “Hot Babes Waiting 4 U!!” or “Make Money FAST While You SLEEP!”

I open the messages. One reads: “Are you having trouble meeting women? Visit our site for all you can handle!” Another: “The GREAT marketing opportunity listed below is NO SCAM and is TOTALLY LEGAL!”

Yeesh. Almost everyone on-line now gets this stuff: florid E-mail offering a bouquet of products — mostly pornography and thinly veiled ponzi schemes. Technically, it’s called unsolicited commercial E-mail. But for years, netizens who hate the stuff have nicknamed it spam, in honour of the world’s only truly onomatopoeic luncheon meat.

Back in the early days of the Internet, this was only a minor annoyance.

If you were very unlucky, you’d get one or two pieces of spam a month. But now, it’s winding up to epidemic proportions. Moderate to heavy Net users, like myself, can receive up to 20 of these messages a day, making up anywhere from 5 to 20 per cent of their mail.

“I think I get around 10 or 15 a day myself,” said K. K. Campbell, editor of the on-line magazine www.theconvergence.com , based in Toronto. “And there’s probably more, because I’ve got filters that knock most of them out before I see them.”

Outside of the personal hassle of deleting the stuff, spam is beginning to wreak financial and logistical havoc at many Internet service providers. Anti-spam activist and new-media consultant Jim Youll says major on-line services are regularly subjected to huge bursts of spam — up to 50,000 at a time — that occasionally knock out parts of their central computers known as servers.

“It’s getting out of control,” Youll said.

“The cost of spam is enormous,” said Corey Snow, a member of the Coalition Against Commercial Unsolicited Email. “There are Net service providers who have full-time staff now that do nothing but clean spam out of their system.”

The big danger of spam is that it reverses the ordinary financial logic of marketing. Normally, as with direct-mail advertising, the advertiser pays the cost of sending you the message. But with spam, it’s the recipient who ultimately pays the cost of the message. Your service provider pays to ferry it through its servers, which places a demand on capacity, and you pay your provider for the service.

Observers such as Snow are worried that, unchecked, spam will continue to grow to become not just a major personal nuisance, but a serious congestion problem for the Net. He points to how spam has almost completely overwhelmed Usenet newsgroups — the Net’s open-forum bulletin boards — making them all but useless.

“You can look at Usenet and see what your E-mail is going to look like in a few years if this stuff isn’t stopped,” Snow said.

Luckily, there are ways to stop it — or at the very least ignore it.

Here’s a sampling of the top strategies, collected from the Net’s main spam-fighters:

Filter out spam so you never see it.

The simplest antispam device is to use two E-mail addresses. One account remains private; you use it solely for communicating with people you know. That way, the address will never fall into a spammer’s hands. The other account is made public; you’ll use it for chatting or posting or filling out forms on publicly visible World Wide Web sites. You never bother checking this account’s E-mail, because it’ll be the one that receives nothing but spam.

Alternatively, you can get a single address, akin to a post-office box, from a forwarding service such as www.bigfoot.com (which is free) or www.netaddress.com (which is cheap). They have sophisticated filters to strip out spam before sending it along to you.

It’s also worth asking your Internet service provider (the company into which you dial to gain Internet access) if it has its own program for filtering spam. Many service providers do, and they can set the program up to work for you.

Or, with a bit of technical knowledge, you can set the filters in your E-mail program to automatically trash spam based on keywords that appear in the text of the junk message. This isn’t hard to do: most spam contains words such as “XXX,” “free offer” or “make money fast.” Filters can easily recognize this stuff. A good tutorial on making filters can be found at www.exposure-usa.com/email/spam.html.

Don’t inadvertently give spammers your E-mail address.

If you belong to a major on-line service such as CompuServe or America Online, get yourself removed from its members directory. This is a favourite place for spammers to collect addresses.

Another way spammers operate is by secretly harvesting the E-mail address from your browser software as you move from Web page to Web page. So, put a fake address in your browser; it won’t affect your browser’s performance. You can usually find the address in your browser’s Preferences menu.

Another defence tactic is to ask whether your Internet service provider is running an “ident demon” program, which also gives your identity away to Web sites. If it does, make your objection known. (You can check by visiting the site at ident.junkbusters.com ; it’ll tell you whether you’re vulnerable.)

Fight back — if you’re feeling adventurous.

Never respond positively to spam; as with annoying pets and certain children, it just encourages them.

If you want have fun doing some detective work, figure out who sent the spam and complain to his or her Internet service provider. Often, you can get the account shut down.

However, it isn’t always easy to figure out where the spam actually came from because spammers often use fake addresses. A good and simple tutorial on deciphering headers (the convoluted address notes that come with Internet E-mail messages) can be found at www.vix.com/spam/howtocomplain.html .

If the spam has been sent from a free E-mail post office such as hotmail.com , rocketmail.com or juno.com , it’s easy to nip it in the bud. These services have strict rules against their members sending spam. Send a complaint and a copy of the spam to the postmaster at the service (for example, to [email protected] ).

If you want to use the Cadillac of antispam devices, download the program Spam Hater, available for a free trial from PC World magazine’s on-line software library at www.pcworld.com (under the Internet & Comm section). Working in tandem with your E-mail software, Spam Haternot only recognizes hundreds of different spammers and filters out their mail, but it automatically traces the spammer’s own computer mailbox and mails back a scathing message. Not for the weak-willed.

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