The fight against spam

Opting out of spam has never worked, but readers say it's getting harder to report spam abuse to the spammers' service providers. These readers say the service providers seem to agree with the spammers' point of view.

          Opting out of spam has never worked, but readers say it's getting harder to report spam abuse to the spammers' service providers. These readers say the service providers seem to agree with the spammers' point of view.

          Rule No. 1 of spam management is never to directly respond to a piece of junk email asking to be removed or unsubscribed. Identifying your email address as one that is active -- and one where unsolicited messages get read down to the removal instructions -- begs for more spam. Instead, report unsolicited commercial email to the postmasters or abuse departments of the ISPs that were used to transmit it.

          One thing I'm seeing in the spam that readers forward me, however, is that internet companies increasingly are taking the spammer's word over the word of those reporting the abuse. Even when presented with evidence to the contrary, the ISPs insist you must have opted in for the mail.

          One reader struggled in vain to convince officials of Doubleclick's Dartmail service that one of its clients had spammed him, even though the receiving address was one his company used only as a "mailto:" address for forms.

          "You know it was bad enough with classic spam," he wrote me after being told that Dartmail's clients are required to use opt-in lists.

          "Now they pretend that you have opted in and convince your ISPs that they are blameless and it is somehow your fault."

          Another reader forwarded a reply he received from a viral marketing website after he complained to them about one of its users promoting the services via spam. The viral marketing firm (which we won't name because the employees probably enjoy the publicity) admitted its user had gotten his mailing list from a notorious bulk emailer, but then went on to scold the reader for his abuse report.

          "Please contact the [bulk email] list owners to get your email address removed," wrote the viral marketing website's administrator.

          "I'm guessing you have gotten a lot of unwanted mail, but maybe you should work on contacting people to find out their source before going off. This method [of reporting spam abuse] just patches problems, it doesn't fix them."

          Part of the dilemma in reporting spam abuse is that it's getting more difficult to tell the legitimate internet services from the sleazier dot-coms because they all use the same marketing tactics.

          When the Microsofts and AOLs keep looking for excuses to spam customers who've tried to opt out, when an IBM starts using viral marketing tactics, or when an structures its privacy policy to make sure it can sell your personal information to anyone it chooses, who is to say which internet entities are legitimate and which aren't? Not knowing who to trust makes it harder to report a spammer to its service providers.

          That's particularly true if the service provider demands even more information about you to accept your abuse report. One reader who was getting a lot of junk email with addresses tried to follow the reporting procedures outlined on Excite's website.

          "There is a page that says if one knows of abuse, they are to send email to," the reader wrote.

          "When one does this, two things immediately happen: The amount of spamming triples from five messages a day to 15 and you get a standard response back sending you to"

          But that web page, the reader discovered, requires the abuse complainer to fill out a form with more personal information, including the Excite member's name. There's a marketing tactic for the new millennium: Join our service now, and maybe we'll ask our members to stop spamming you.

          Naturally, the real outlaw types on the internet are looking for ways to exploit the uncertainty users may feel about getting their names off spamming lists. Several readers forwarded a message they'd received touting a website that provides up-to-date information on the "go-go bars and adult nightlife" of Bangkok. Although the main content was nasty enough, the sleaziest part of the message was the removal instruction:

          "To be removed from our mailing list you must call 1-900-xxx-xxxx," the spam read. "There will be a one-time, 75 cents charge on your phone bill to cover our administrative costs in removing your email from our lists."

          Because very few folks who live where they can use a 900 number have an ongoing need for news on Bangkok nightlife, I suspect the whole point of the spam was to try to offend recipients into paying the removal fee.

          We can hope I'm not giving the more legitimate outfits any ideas by reporting these tactics, but you never know. It's easy to get the feeling that reporting spam abuse these days is a bit like having to report the crimes of small-time hoods to the big-time gangsters.

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