Spam slayer: Laws won't solve everything

SAN FRANCISCO (11/10/2003) - Tip of the week

Virus writers are like politicians--they reach out to the masses. When it comes to e-mail, Windows Outlook and Outlook Express are the masses. You may not want to switch your operating system, but you can protect yourself (and your address book) from many viruses by using Outlook alternatives. Try Eudora or free mail readers from Netscape Communications Corp. or from Mozilla that offer intelligent spam-filtering. Remember, scan attachments for viruses before opening.

Send gripes, questions, and tips about the spam wars to spamwatch@pcworld.com . Return to the SpamWatch page for more articles.

If you thought promising new antispam laws mean you can ditch your spam-filtering software sometime soon, think again.

Come January, the nation's toughest antispam law takes effect in California, affecting e-mail marketers in all 50 states and doling out fines of up to US$1 million to guilty spammers. At the federal level, the U.S. Senate unanimously passed the CAN-SPAM Act, which still needs House approval to become law. That promising bill also endorses a do-not-spam list modeled after the wildly popular do-not-call registry.

It all sounds great. The only problem is both laws won't stop the worst offenders, and law-abiding companies could get hurt. That's bad news for spam haters, especially considering a recent estimate by antispam firm Solid Oak Software Inc. that 90 percent of e-mail is "illegitimate."

Can California terminate spam?

California's law requires that commercial e-mail to or from anyone in the state be sent only to people who specifically request information from the advertiser (called an "opt-in" approach). Violate the law and you could pay fines of $1000 for each unsolicited message.

Naturally, companies that rely on e-mail to send marketing information are concerned. But as a rule, laws that worry e-marketers are good news for spam haters. Unfortunately, the California law has some loopholes.

Companies with preexisting relationships with consumers can spam away. And if you provide your e-mail address to Web sites that offer prizes, you may legally become spambait. That's because the fine print of many sweepstakes sites clearly states that by entering, you are authorizing third-party marketing partners to send e-mail to you.

Honest e-mail marketers say California's antispam laws are harsh and unclear. They fear the law will create a cottage industry for "spambulance" chasers, or trial lawyers suing well-heeled advertisers.

"If my business was based in California we'd likely have to close up shop after this law goes into effect," says Michael Mayor, president of New York-based NetCreations Inc., which builds opt-in e-mail lists for businesses. NetCreations has had to extract California e-mail addresses, as well as those with unknown state origins, from its vast e-mail database, Mayor says.

Tough to enforce: No-spam list

The CAN-SPAM bill would require that every e-mail message give recipients a way to unsubscribe from the advertiser's e-mail list. Moreover, the Senate bill authorizes the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to create a do-not-spam list modeled after the popular do-not-call list. The CAN-SPAM Act could be signed into law as early as December, say legislation watchers.

Many e-mail marketers favor the CAN-SPAM bill over California's antispam law because it focuses on making e-mail senders accurately identify themselves--a cinch for legitimate correspondents. It also creates one unifying national law that supersedes a patchwork of more than 30 state antispam laws, including California's. Marketers complain it's hard to keep track of and comply with dozens of different laws.

But a national do-not-spam list would be a disaster for small businesses, says John Rizzi, chief executive officer of marketing firm E-Dialog. Most spammers won't abide by the list, he says, but legitimate small businesses will. Even J. Howard Beales III, director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection, thinks a do-not-spam list is a bad idea. "It would be unenforceable," Beales says. "Spammers are not people who pay a lot of attention to legal rules."

Spammers duck the laws

The Direct Marketing Association Inc. (DMA), which is closely watching the spam wars, says laws are just one part of a four-pronged solution. Stopping spam also takes antispam technology, law enforcement, and industry self-regulation.

"There is still no silver bullet for spam," says Louis Mastria, director of Public and International Affairs with the DMA. "That's not going to change with the passage of either law."

Spam is a global problem, and congressional efforts to ban junk e-mail won't stop it coming from outside the U.S. or from disreputable spammers. For now just keep your spam filters and definitions up-to-date, and keep hitting Delete.

Q&A

Q. For years, I have saved spam and reported it to the FTC. I'm still getting spam from the same people. The FTC has never once acknowledged my forwards. Do they do anything with complaints?

--Jim

A. The FTC encourages people to report and forward spam to uce@ftc.gov. In its defense, the FTC says it lacks the resources to resolve individual complaints. It uses the many complaints it gets to spot new spam trends and tricks. Messages about illegal spam are forwarded to law enforcement.

Q. I am receiving returned e-mail notices that e-mail I sent cannot be delivered. This is e-mail I never sent to begin with. What is going on here?

--Ron B.

A. Spammers often hijack e-mail addresses and list them as their return address on spam. Probably your e-mail address is being used as a return address to mask the spammer's identity. This is unfortunate and, worse, there isn't anything you can do to prevent it; you can only wait until the spammer moves on to a different victim. You should report the abuse to your ISP so it doesn't blame you for the spam.

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