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How to Short Circuit Junk E-Mail

by Marc Eisenson

      Spam packs a triple whammy for marketers. It's cheap, quick, and targeted to upscale computer users. Sometimes, spam arrives in the guise of a free, but unsolicited newsletter. Instead of informative articles, you get hype for products of questionable value. Phony get-rich-quick schemes, chain letters, and other assorted scams also abound.

Opportunity, the Mother of Intrusion

      One company proudly claims to send out unsolicited e-mail to 1.8 million people, every day. For a mere $2,500, it'll deliver 40 lines of spam.

      Using the post office's bulk rate to send "snail" junk mail to 1.8 million people would cost at least $198,000. Design, printing, and paper would be extra, and it could take weeks to arrive.

      At present, there's nothing to stop spammers from clogging on-line channels to the point of choking off legitimate communication. Indeed, one spammer offers everyone who can log on, the ability to "press a few buttons, and prepare a mailing list of 50,000+ in less than five minutes ... ."

      Just buy the software it hawks, and you'll learn "how to download the right files, how to strip the addresses, and finally how to send your marketing letter to thousands of recipients FOR FREE."

      Another bulk e-mailer culls 20,000 addresses a day from "special chat rooms, and help forums" visited by new internet users. Why? Because new users "eagerly read EVERY e-mail they receive." How much for these hot prospect e-mail addresses? Just $20 for 50,000.

      And addresses in hand, it costs a spammer the same ... virtually nothing ... to send junk e-mail to one person as it does to hundreds. But as the folks at The Campaign to Stop Junk E-Mail put it (address below), spam costs us "real money in terms of extra connect-time charges, phone time charges, disk space, and phone line tie-ups... ."

      It also wastes our time, clogs up our e-mail boxes, and is at odds with the helpful, personal nature of `Net communications. Information on the Internet is meant to be sought, not pushed our way without our consent.

      About half of on-line users just delete junk e-mail whenever they get some. But that won't stop it from annoying you and overloading on-line resources, again and again.

      At a minimum, since spam is often very long, don't read it while you're on-line, especially if you don't have unlimited Internet access. And if you have to pay for a long distance call to log on, wait until you've logged off, before perusing any spam you haven't automatically trashed.

The Secret Life of Spam

      The key to keeping spam from clogging your inbox is knowing how spammers compile their lists. In large part, they simply collect the e-mail addresses of `Net users who post messages to on-line bulletin boards or participate in newsgroup and chat group discussions.

      For example, one posting "rewarded" us with a piece of spam a mere 24 hours later. Another took 48 hours. In both cases, more spam followed ... as night follows day! The ultimate spam, though, promoted a book on ... of all things ... privacy! It arrived soon after we posted to a newsgroup on privacy.

      If you're listed in an on-line service's membership directory or register at websites, your name, e-mail address, and other personal information could be up for grabs. Even if all you do is e-mail a question or comment to a website, you can be setting yourself up for an invasion from cyberspace. (One note we sent generated spam within 36 hours.)

      In short, unless you're told otherwise, assume any personal information you provide will be sold, traded, stored, or simply recovered by marketers big and small, legitimate or not. Since you can never be sure who'll end up with your postings and correspondence, be very careful about revealing anything personal, and caution your kids about giving out any such details on-line. Otherwise, your inbox could soon be flooded, and your privacy further washed away.

      And there's nothing to stop an employer, marketer, friend ... or snoop ... from looking at your newsgroup postings, all of which can be conveniently searched using Deja News. Your thoughts, interests, and e-mail address are never Lost in Space. They remain available for all to view.

Find Spam Unpalatable?

1. Opt out when you're offered a way. But be warned: Unscupulous mailers may use your opt out request as confirmation of your address, and add you to yet more lists. Many experts believe that opting out is worthless.

      Still, sites such as Junkbusters (http://www.junkbusters.com) give Internet users a place to express their preference to "opt-out" of junk e-mail lists. The hope is that once many of us fill them out, concerned marketers will use these databases to clean their lists of folks who don't want any more junk e-ads.

2. Call to complain on the spammer's nickel if you receive junk e-mail that includes a toll-free number.

3. Have a form letter ready in your word processor, with a "please take me off your list" request. Copy and paste it on an e-mail message when there's no toll-free number. It may help when the spammer gives a real e-mail address. If not, see #9 below.

Warning: While e-mail "bombing" (returning the spam hundreds of times) or calling a spammer's toll-free number repeatedly may be tempting, be advised. This could be considered harassment, and might get you into trouble.

4. Complain to your own Internet service provider. Find out where to forward offending messages, and change providers if yours is unresponsive.

      You can also call customer service, where you may have to speak to a supervisor to get the proper attention. But if you're particularly incensed by a piece of spam, it's worth the effort. Call AOL at 800-827-6364, CompuServe at 800-848-8990, and Prodigy at 800-213-0992.

5. Install a mail filter on your own computer that blocks junk e-mail based on the sender's name, service provider, or subject. Go to http://www.ecofuture.org/ecofuture/jmemail.html#efilters for links to filters you can download to reject mail from known spammers. (It generally takes a bit of computer experience to get a filter in place. If you don't feel you're up to the task, have a computer savvy friend walk you through it.)

6. Monitor news.admin.net-abuse.email, a newsgroup that offers continually updated postings about handling junk e-mail. It's a good way to keep on top of the worst offenders and their latest strategies.

7. "Fool" the spammers by how you post. Say your regular e-mail address is rachel@uraqt.net. Instead, change it to rachel@REMOVE.THIS.TO.REPLY.uraqt.net. Live human beings will know to omit the REMOVE.THIS.TO.REPLY. The spammers, with their "address culling robots," as attorney and spam foe Mark Welch calls them, would get their junk back as undeliverable.

      Many people routinely add "spam bait" to their news-group posts, the e-mail addresses of the White House, and key Senators and Representatives. Spammer robots pick up these addresses and send spam to them, along with everyone else. The hope is that rather than drowning in spam, our august elected officials will choose to regulate it.

8. Post through an "anonymous remailer" or two if you really want to keep your views private. The remailer accepts your e-mail, removes your address, and then forwards it. Take a look at privacy expert Andre Bacard's site: http://www.well.com/user/abacard/remail.html

9. Complain to everyone connected with the spam and its service provider. Several of the sites listed on page #5 give detailed instructions for tracing the often secret routes that spammers use to get their junk to us.

10. Pretend you're interested in the product in order to get more information to present to your Internet provider, and to the provider that's helping the spammer. If you do go to this much trouble, post your findings to the news.admin.net-abuse.email newsgroup, perhaps disguising your name as we recommend in #7 above.

11. Make them pay! There's a move afoot to stop spammers by notifying them that you'll be charging a fee to receive each of their notices in the future. Once warned, take the spammers to small claims court if they keep sending you their junk.

      Although it's unlikely you'd ever collect on a judgment, if enough of us hassle them, spammers may decide to send their junk only to people who actually want to receive it. Go to http://www.csn.net/~felbel/jmspamletter.html for the details.

More on Stopping Spam and Protecting Privacy

      Here are our current favorite websites that offer detailed, helpful advice on dealing with junk e-mail and keeping your personal business ... personal:
Junk E-Mail and Spam: http://www.csn.net/~felbel/ jmemail.html

E-Mail Abuse FAQ: http://members.aol.com/emailfaq/emailfaq.html (No need to be an AOL subscriber.)

The Campaign to Stop Junk E-Mail: http://www.mcs.com/~jcr/junkemail.html

Blacklist of Internet Advertisers (this url's a bit tricky):

Junk E-mail, Bulk E-mail, Unsolicited Commercial E-mail: http://www.markwelch.com/aol_junk.htm

Privacy Rights Clearinghouse: http://www.privacyrights.org

Electronic Privacy Information Center: http://www.epic.org

The Rest of the Story

      For more details about stopping spam than we could cram onto this site, get the newest edition of our popular booklet, Stop Junk Mail Forever ($4.50 US).

      You'll also learn how to stop those 72 billion or so sales pitches that appear every year, uninvited in our mailboxes, without giving up the catalogues you actually enjoy.

      We explain the many ways that your name is marketed ... at your expense. And perhaps best of all, we tell you what you can do to stop those dreaded telemarketing calls!

The Pocket Change Investor
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Reprinted from The Pocket Change Investor, Issue #19
© 1997, Marc Eisenson & Nancy Castleman
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