Feature

The curse of spam

Spam—the electronic equivalent of junk mail—now accounts for 40 percent of e-mail in this country. Spam is almost universally reviled, yet it’s spreading like kudzu. Can it be stopped?

How much spam is out there?It’s a mind-numbing, mailbox-choking deluge of unsolicited advertisements. The average American now gets spammed more than 110 times per week. Last year, 261 billion pieces of spam were sent, an 86 percent increase over 2001. This year, the total could reach 1 trillion pieces. In a recent test, the Federal Trade Commission opened a new e-mail account for a fictitious person, posted a message in a religious chat room—and got its first spam 21 minutes later. It was a lurid ad for a porn site. Humorist Dave Barry has called spam “the mutant spawn of a bizarre reproductive act involving a telemarketer, Larry Flynt, a tapeworm, and an executive of the Third Class mail industry.”

What does spam sell?Nearly anything you can think of—vacation packages, 3-D glasses, home-study courses, diet pills, life insurance, freckle cream. The FTC says the biggest offender, representing 20 percent of all spam, is “investment and business opportunities.” That includes work-at-home pitches, franchise deals, and profit-making schemes. Another fifth is classified as “finance,” i.e. credit cards, mortgage offers, and the like. And another fifth is the notorious “adult” category, which offers Viagra, pornography, “dating” services, and everybody’s favorite, the amazing penis enlarger. In a recent sampling, the FTC found that 66 percent of spam was fraudulent, containing false information about the sender, the content, or both. Spam, the government says, is more than a mere annoyance.

Why is that?Spam is not only deceptive—it eats up Internet bandwidth and overwhelms the resources of service providers. Those expenses get passed along to you: Spam adds about $25 to the average Internet user’s yearly bill. Many folks have become so disgusted that they’re closing e-mail accounts and reverting to phone calls and letters.

Then why is spam growing?Because it’s so profitable. Only a tiny percentage of recipients respond to spam offers, but the cost of sending them is so minuscule it’s worth it. To send 1 million come-ons via e-mail costs only about $500. That means the 200 hard-core spammers can turn a profit even if only 1 in 100,000 people respond. Peter Cook, a computer scientist at Temple University, has estimated that spam generates tens of billions of dollars annually. Spammer Charles Childs, who spews out up to 20 million ads a week from Dayton, Ohio, says it beats honest work. “The Internet is the greatest advertising entity since the beginning of TV,” he says.

Can’t spam be filtered?In theory, yes, but in practice, only partially. One Internet service provider, EarthLink, estimates that despite its best efforts, 20 percent to 30 percent of spam sent to its subscribers gets through. America Online manages to block about 1.6 million junk e-mails to its users per minute. But spammers are constantly finding new ways of hiding their addresses, disguising their messages, and otherwise evading anti-spam technology. One favorite method of penetration is deliberately misspelling key words, like “Viag.a,” “girlz,” and “pe-is,” so as not to alert automated spam scrubbers. Another is offering unwitting consumers an “unsubscribe” link. If you hit it, you only confirm that your e-mail address is active. This information is then sold to other spammers. “My job is like trying to keep cockroaches and rats out of a warehouse,” said Suresh Ramasubramanian, a service systems administrator in Hong Kong. “Only, in my case, the warehouse is huge and surrounded by swamps full of the damned pests.”

How do the targets feel about spam?Take a guess. A recent Harris Poll found that 74 percent of Internet users wanted spam banned outright, with only 12 percent opposed. Eighty percent said they found spam “very annoying.” Not surprisingly, anti-spam groups are flourishing. One of the biggest is Spamhaus of Great Britain, which issues “blacklists” of fraudulent spammers and alerts service providers to cancel their accounts. There are also spam vigilantes. Last fall, after the Detroit Free Press profiled Alan Ralsky, the so-called “King of Spam,” an irate public flooded his in-box with spam of their own. They also deluged his regular mailbox with catalogs and brochures, jammed his answering machine with messages, and dumped excrement on his doorstep. “They use worse tactics than we do,” said Robert “Bubba” Catts of Shreveport, La., a self-styled “honest” spammer who has received hundreds of threatening letters.

Is there any other defense?Lawmakers are now trying to stop the flood with prohibitions on spam. Any law must be carefully worded so as not to violate First Amendment rights to free speech; courts have ruled that “commercial speech” can be regulated, but not banned outright. Thirty states have now enacted some form of anti-spam legislation, most of them geared to the spammers’ tactic of disguising the source of the e-mail. Virginia’s, the most recent and perhaps the toughest, would jail spammers who hide their identity or send 10,000 copies of the same fraudulent message in one day. New York has just arrested Howard Carmack, the so-called “Buffalo Spammer,” who sent 825 million pieces of spam by setting up e-mail accounts with 343 stolen identities. Georgia has already ordered Carmack to pay $16.4 million in fines. Everyone except the spammers agrees that drastic action is needed. “Long term, if the industry cannot deal with spam,” said AOL senior vice president Joe Barrett, “it’s going to destroy e-mail.”

Spam’s humble beginnings

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