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What is "spamming"?

"Spamming" is an Internet term invented to describe the act of cross-posting the same message to as many newsgroups and/or mailing lists as possible, whether or not the message is germane to the stated topic of the newsgroups or mailing lists that are being targeted. It also refers to unwanted e-mail solicitations sent to an individual whose e-mail address has fallen into the wrong hands. I hope you find the following information regarding this issue helpful.

The basic facts of spamming

Spamming has become a commercial industry. There are books telling you everything you have to know to make a "successful" spam, and there are companies that will spam millions of people for a fee (usually a few hundred dollars).

The basic facts of spamming are that:

ANYONE CAN SPAM: anyone with Internet access can spam. It is impossible (and undesirable) to control who has or does not have the right to use the Internet, so there is nothing you can do to prevent people from sending out spam over the Internet.

SPAMMING IS STILL LEGAL (UNFORTUNATELY): to date, most forms of spamming break no laws. As long as this activity remains legal, there can be no fine or other punishment for the spammers. This is a very profitable, if disreputable, form of advertisement, so one can safely assume that it will only grow.

PEOPLE SPAM BECAUSE IT ACTUALLY WORKS: if spamming did not turn up any sales, it would have died out a long time ago. Unfortunately, people are actually buying from the companies that spam, making spam the most cost effective form of advertisement currently available. As long as this remains the case, companies will use it. As a proof of concept, you will find that (real world) junk mail and telemarketing are virtually nonexistent in some European countries, for the very simple reason that people do not buy when solicited in this fashion.

Point 1 is pretty much a given. In countries where freedom of speech is taken for granted, restricting Internet access is simply not an option. So, the key issues are points 2 and 3. Point 3 is the most irritating, but probably very difficult to change. People who react positively to junk snail-mail and telemarketing will probably do the same with junk e-mail. Only a fundamental change in people's habits could turn spam into a non-business, and this will not happen overnight.

A lot of e-mail marketers get their start with courses and software from the likes of the Internet Marketing Center. IMC encourages the people who take its courses to be responsible e-mail marketers and avoid practices such as renting sloppily gathered e-mail lists. But regardless of how well-targeted these e-mail campaigns get, it's still a given that most of these e-mails will end up in the trash along with the Viagra sales pitch--only you will have to read more than just the message headers to determine that they're cold calls.

Bugged SPAM Messages: Hidden code in e-mail messages is increasingly being used to track the success of unsolicited commercial e-mail campaigns. An antispam technology company, said that up to 50 percent of all spam released in 2003 was bugged with so-called "spam beacons" that send a coded message back to the spammer whenever a spam message is opened, helping spammers refine their distribution lists and weed out good e-mail addresses from bad ones.

The beacons, also known as "Web bugs," are created with HTML (Hypertext Markup Language) code embedded in the e-mail. For example, the beacon may be a URL (uniform resource locator) for an image file that is stored on a server controlled by the spammer. When the e-mail message is opened, the e-mail application requests the image and also sends along an encoded e-mail address of the recipient. The spammer's server responds by sending the image file to be displayed, but it also captures the e-mail address that was sent in a database of "good" addresses.

HTML is the coding language used to create pages on the World Wide Web. Most e-mail programs also accept and read e-mail messages written with HTML.

The company analyzed millions of spam messages that it processes for its 1,500 customers each day to study the spam beacon problem. Their products use heuristic analysis to spot and block messages containing spam beacons.

The company said renewed awareness of the spam beacon problem is needed because most e-mail users don't realize that they are being tracked by spammers. Also, many e-mail providers are not interested in stopping a "feedback loop" that lets spammers improve their art. They found that spammers are becoming more sophisticated in hiding the spam beacons from antispam filters, and that spammers are using the data reported by the beacons to groom their messages and evade detection.

Anti-spam legislation?

So, the only credible solution seems to be in the legal arena. Most countries have existing legislation to regulate phone and FAX solicitations and make sure that people are not harassed by over-greedy salesmen, and that they never need to bear the costs of the advertisements they are sent. There is no reason, at least in theory, why these laws could not be extended to cover electronic media. For instance, most countries require telemarketers to clearly identify themselves and the company that they represent, and to provide a mechanism for the customer to request not to be called again. This makes it possible for people to tell the telemarketers to leave them alone, something which is not currently possible with spammers as many of them send their solicitations under forged e-mail addresses that change with every advertisement.

Similarly, in most countries it is illegal to advertise in a manner that would force the recipient to bear part of the cost of the advertisement. Today, the spam companies only pay a tiny fraction of the cost of delivering their advertisement; in most cases, the bulk of the costs are borne by the victims, who incur hourly connection charges to download the advertisements.

The future of spamming – short vs. long term

To conclude, when you get down to the basic facts, spamming is here to stay until the legislation is changed to recognize the fact that this form of advertisement is unfair to the recipient, who needs to bear most the costs of the advertisement and does not even have a mechanism to stop future occurrences, as the messages are sent from a forged origin. Unfortunately, this will not happen overnight.

The hard reality, however, is that people do not want to be subjected to large volumes of spam mail at their expense, so something is bound to be done to restrict spam, sooner or later. Imagine what would happen if, every day, you found 100 advertisements in your mailbox, all coming from randomly generated (but valid) bogus addresses that you cannot filter out! And why should the spammers stop at 100? If spamming becomes a successful business, thousands of new companies will be started every year to "develop this new marketing concept". In a matter of months, you may find that there are not 100 but 1,000 new advertisements in your mailbox every day. The Internet would become completely unusable, and you would not be able to get your work done. The legal system would not be able to ignore the situation. To a large extent, the reason nothing has happened thus far is that the issue has not been taken seriously enough, because there haven't been enough spams to create a major disaster on the Internet!

How to respond to a spam

If a spam gets through to your list, it will probably engender sarcastic replies (often with the spam quoted in its entirety) – and these replies will often be posted back to the list. It is therefore imperative that you make subscribers aware that when a spam occurs:

The person responsible for the spam is probably not subscribed to the list, and thus any response back to the list will fail to reach the offender.

An appropriate response to a spam is to forward a single copy of the spam to the person in charge of the site from which the spam originated ("ABUSE", "WEBMASTER", "POSTMASTER", "root", etc.), pointing out that the spammer is probably violating his site's appropriate use policies.

It is inappropriate to attempt to flood the spammer's mailbox with network mail in response. This is probably in violation of your network's appropriate use policies, and it just wastes bandwidth.

Perhaps the best policy an individual subscriber can adopt toward spammers is to simply to ignore them, leaving the problem in the hands of list owners and newsgroup moderators, who usually have more Internet experience. If this does not work and subscribers send their complaints to the list anyway, it might be a good idea to moderate the list for a few days until the furor dies down.

Finally, I would like to propose the following guidelines for reacting to unwanted solicitation on or off your lists:

DO NOT FLAME ON THE LIST! The spammer is probably not subscribed, so you would just be adding to the noise level.

Remember the name of the company that sent you the ad, and make sure never to buy anything from them. Call their corporate headquarters and let them know how much you were upset by the spam. In many cases, the companies whose products are featured in the spam acted out of ignorance and genuinely did not know that this form of advertisement was not appreciated. Educating them will make the spam company lose a customer.

Do not bother flaming the spammer. By the time you read the spam, his account will already have been closed, assuming it isn't a bogus account to start with. At any rate, the spammer will not bother reading people's indignant replies. Spammers are usually well aware of what they are doing, and are totally indifferent to your feelings. Replying is just a waste of your time.

Do not flame the service provider. It is easy to say "You shouldn't be allowing people like XXXX to get an account!", but it is impossible to implement in practice. Just as most company's can't do much to monitor and control how individuals use their software once they license it, it is equally difficult for an Internet service provider to control what customers do with their accounts.

Even if someone developed a psychological test that enabled service providers to detect would-be spammers in advance with 99.9% certainty, it would be a legal nightmare to put the test in operation. And it would be completely useless. All you need to spam millions of people is a free 10-day trial diskette from any major online provider. All in all, it's absolutely impossible to run a free interchange medium like the Internet without getting a number of unwanted people in the lot. There are unscrupulous people on the Internet, just as there are in the rest of the world, and there isn't much anyone can do about it, because until they speak up they're just an e-mail address like any other. The same goes with spammers.

Do not press the service provider for assistance in "tracing" the spammer. In most countries it would be unlawful for them to release this kind of information to you. However, the spammer probably provided a snail-mail address or phone number in his message, or some other contact point to place orders. If you really want to find out more about him, this is a good starting point, and it places you squarely in the realm of real world law, which is well understood by the judges and lawyers.

If you want to inconvenience the spammer in retaliation for the inconvenience you have suffered, by all means do go ahead, but NOT OVER THE INTERNET! Mail-bombing the provider's Postmaster address will inconvenience the provider, not the spammer, and in most cases the provider is a victim, just like you. It's going to cost them thousands of dollars in wasted manpower just to discard all the flamage they will receive. Instead, what you should do is use the real world contact info that was provided with the advertisement. This will actually reach the spammer, because this is where he is hoping to receive the checks. Yes, it means you will have to use a real world communication medium, but that's your only option. The hard reality is that complaining over the Internet will accomplish nothing: after sending the ad, the spammer is gone from the Internet. Orders will be placed using real world methods and that is your only means of reaching the spammer from then on.

When accusing people or companies in public, make sure to check your facts carefully before pressing the SEND button. Remember how spamming works: the spammer abuses the computer resources and manpower of hundreds of thousands of sites worldwide to deliver his advertisement. The victims are you, us, and just about everyone on the Internet. Yes, even people whose name or hostname is mentioned in the mail header are likely to be victims; spammers have no qualms about forging mail, and even when they don't, it still doesn't mean the parties involved had knowledge of the spammer's activities and will share the profits.

So, if you have to make an assumption, it should be that the people involved in the delivery of the message are victims, just like you, except that the spam will waste even more time for them than for you. The last thing you need, when you have just spent four hours answering spam complaints from (other) victims, is to see a message where someone accuses you and/or your employer of being the master mind of organized spamming and suggests that you should be shot for the public good, or at least that someone should send the FBI to your house and have you put under arrest, with dozens of messages agreeing with the previous one or suggesting even more barbaric forms of punishment.

In fact, such messages are taken seriously by some of the people they target and may result in serious psychological trauma. They may also result in a lawyer or police officer giving you a phone call, when you did not really mean what you were typing. So far spamming has yet to result in human death; please, let's keep it this way.

From the Federal Trade Commission

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