Ann Arbor Business to Business
Small Business and the Internet

You've Got Spam!

May 2000

By Mike Gould

This was supposed to have been an article detailing the fun we had getting DSL installed here at the offices of B2B, but the installers didn't show up (another casualty of the ongoing communications revolution, I guess). So I'll revert to Plan B:

Plan B From Outer Space I recently had the pleasure of addressing a lunch meeting of the Ann Arbor Chamber of Commerce (thanks, Barbara and Amy!), speaking on the topic of "The 10 Commandments (and Four Amendments) of Email". This went over so well that I decided to share them (the commandments, not Barbara and Amy) with you; they appear somewhere near this article, and are also available at http://mondodyne.com/10commemail.html.

After the talk, the first question was about spam; where does it come from, how to get rid of it, how to track down the perpetrators and have them flayed and beaten, etc. A lively discussion ensued (boiling in oil vs. tarring and feathering), and given the amount of interest, I decided that Spam was Plan B.

"Spamdy Spam, Beautiful Spam..."
Fans of Monty Python will recognize the above as lyrics to the Spam song, which featured a group of Vikings sitting in a London restaurant singing a song about Spam. The rest of the lyrics go: "Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam...". Note the subtle use of repetition.

Meanwhile, across the ocean, American geeks of the day (late 60's, early 70's) were happily creating UseNet news, a vast and wonderful system of electronic bulletin boards. Here anyone with an Internet connection (around 400 people at the time, all big Monty Python fans) could post messages, commentary, and words of wisdom. The Internet was an academic area funded by the government, and commercialism was taboo.

The Birth of Spam
Flash forward to the mid-90's: AOL unleashed their membership onto the Internet. Suddenly what had been the happy playground for a few advanced computer users became a vast wasteland, littered with stunned newbies wandering around the Internet asking stupid questions and bumping into things. The non-commercial aspect of the Internet disappeared with the appearance of the first Spam; the infamous Green Card incident. A couple of loathsome lawyers (um, make that "ethically-disabled") noticed the opportunity the Internet offered in delivering captive eyeballs, and sent simultaneous messages to almost all of the UseNet bulletin boards, offering legal services for immigrants.

UseNet erupted in outrage, and someone coined the phrase "Spam" to describe the event, because of the repetition involved (you would read one board: Green Card, you go to the next board: Green Card and so on). Some claim the name arose because of the resemblance to the act of inserting a block of Spam into an active fan - the debate rages on. Then the same sort of behavior started happening to email, and the phrase evolved to mean unwanted ads perpetrated electronically.

This was all very distressing to Armor Meats, who thought that Spam meant "Special Processed Armor Meat", a food-like product born to feed the fighting men of WWII. Now it means "Septic Products As Mail", a fertilizer-like product born to annoy the surfing folk of the WWW.

When Bad Things Are Sent to Good People
So how did you get on the spammers target list? There are lots of ways, all involving the use of your email address. Whenever you give someone your address, you put yourself at risk. Online companies routinely ask for your address when you buy from them so they can notify you of updates, etc.; the better ones will state that your address will not be passed on. But not everybody honors this, and not everybody promises this. There is an active market for lists of names and email addresses.

One of the ways you get on lists is because your friends put you there, perhaps unknowingly. Any time one of your clue-challenged friends sends you a joke, cc-ing it to all their friends, your email address gets sent to all their friends, who might not be your friend. In fact, he or she might be selling your address to a spammer. Think of it: a list of email recipients accompanies a joke - the recipient thinks it's pretty funny and cc's it to all their friends; the cc list grows and grows. Then the joke hits the virtual desk of some slimeball who thinks "Whoa, dude! I can get $1 a name from BottomFeeder Advertising Agency; I'm rich!"

Moral of the story: always send to groups of people via bcc. This stands for Blind Carbon Copy, and anyone receiving via bcc doesn't see the list of people the message was sent to. (See Commandment IV nearby.)

Who Ya Gonna Call?
Often at the bottom of a spam-o-gram you will see the message "To be removed from this list, please send email to SendaScam@sleazeball.com". Don't do this: this lets the spammer know that this is indeed a valid email address that can be sold or traded to others.

Do this: hit whatever button in your email software enables you see the full headers of the message (this is the digital-ese that describes the paths the spam took to get to you). Then copy the entire message, headers and all. Then go to http://spamcop.net/ and register for this free service. Then paste the spam into the field provided and click on the appropriate button. Spam Cop is an automated process which will track down the sender of the spam and send a complaint to the senders ISP, and the postmasters of any embedded email addresses. Often this will get the offender kicked off the Net, at least temporarily. You usually will get a report from the ISP telling you that the matter is being investigated, and often, a notice that the offending party's email account has been yanked (a very satisfying report to get, indeed.)

Do this: write your congress person and exhort her or him to enact tough anti-spam bills. Remember: you are paying for the spam you receive, in ISP bills, bandwidth, and the time spent trashing it.

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