Spam Squared
(hennhaus: Hard Baud)

(Originally published May 22, 1997)

Spam Squared

Ordinarily, fighting Spam only requires a fork and a healthy appetite — in the wired world, however, meat by-products are not the concern du jour. ‘Spam,’ as most online users know, is the unsolicited advertising that miraculously appears in your emailbox the day after you’ve set up your Internet account. The latest news on the spam-front is particularly unsettling.

It takes little programming savvy to write up a ditty that surfs Web pages and Usenet newsgroups with the sole purpose of isolating email addresses. Such are located in ‘mailto:’ links on Web pages, and in header sender/recipient information inherent to newsgroup postings. The gleaned addresses are appended to an internal database which is later used in mail-merge fashion for bulk spam email. On a difficulty scale, this is ‘Intro to Programming’ stuff.

Given the simplicity of snagging addresses, one might wonder why more spam doesn’t find its way into one’s emailbox. The answer, for the most part, is fear of prosecution. Email spam is almost universally proscribed: Internet Service Providers have proven quite adept at following up promises to terminate accounts from whence spam originates. Lawsuits are pending from ISPs who’ve acted as unwitting relayers of megabytes of undesired text. In short, herein lies the fear of God: Touching a spammer’s wallet is akin to pouring Perrier on the wicked witch of the west.

If there’s a way around such unpleasantries, expect it to be found. Consider television advertising: Regulations were passed that made increasing an advertisement’s volume over that of regular programming a no-no. Yet, if you’ve ever been blown out of your television trance by an ad for third-rate furniture, you may be convinced that someone’s playing fast and loose with the regulators. They’re not; they’ve increased the ads’ amplitude, not their volume. Your assaulted ears are hard-pressed to distinguish ‘twixt the two.

As every email leaves an electronic ‘paper’ trail back to the sender in its header (whether the sender’s name is doctored or not), tricks have been employed to disguise spam’s point of origin — such as bouncing it from unsuspecting ‘third-party’ sites. This sort of opportunism tends to be rewarded by litigation.

Enter Cyber Promotions. For only US$995, you can “SEND OVER 50,000 EMAILS AN HOUR WITH A 28.8 MODEM! YOUR LOCAL DIALUP ACCOUNT WON’T BE SHUT OFF! YOUR EMAIL CAMPAIGN WILL BE COMPLETELY LEGAL!”

Splendid. The ‘completely legal’ method in question is a mail redirector site, wherein spam is sent through ‘savetrees.com’ using whatever user name the spammer chose when he or she paid the long green. Mail sent to the spammer at savetrees.com can either be cached or redirected by Cyber Promotions to the spammer’s actual address — the sender never sees the spam’s actual originating site or domain. Redirectors are a fairly new innovation, having for the most part replaced the anonymous remailer services of yore. Their intended purpose is to permit people with many ISP accounts — or people who move often from ISP to ISP — the luxury of using just one email address. iName and HotMail are two example companies using this technology: Mail sent to ‘henn@mindless.com,’ f’rinstance, is redirected by iName to my existing ISP emailbox. Should I ever change to another company’s Internet service, mail sent to ‘mindless.com’ will still find me.

The difference, then, is twofold: HotMail and iName don’t permit spamming or other unethical use of their facilities. The gentleman of questionable intelligence who sent death threats to university students over the ‘Net used a HotMail account, and HotMail had no qualms whatsoever in helping Canadian police locate the fool. Setting up a redirection account at either company is free — a shade cheaper than the grand charged for Cyber Promotion’s ‘Cyber-Bomber’ service.

Cyber Promotions, it would seem, needs the money. The company recently settled a suit initiated by CompuServe to the tune of US$65,000.00, and considerably more litigation is pending. Cyber Promotions has other woes, too: Some netizens actively crusade against spamming. A few million malicious download requests (reverse spamchology?) recently mucked up the company’s works for a day.

There is money to be made on the Web, but I suspect most of it comes about by accepted venues: a user sees something useful, clicks on it and orders it. Chances are, if you have to look for loopholes, there’s something very wrong with your advertising strategy . . . or perhaps the product itself.

Mentioned above:

Cyber Promotions (www.cyberpromo.com)

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Copyright © 1997, 2006 by John Rudzinski. Note the date the column was originally published; any links contained therein are probably outdated.
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Related media and reading:
What do you call a guy who\’s filed 1,000 lawsuits? Utah Attorney Jesse Riddle is on a personal crusade–to get bulk e-mailers to stop.(Q&A)(Interview): An article from: San Diego Business Journal Norton AntiSpam 2005 - Single User Spam wars–the litigation begins.(Tech Forum): An article from: Strategic Finance