We all hate spammers. There is truly nothing good that you can say about them. They allegedly constitute a form of human life, but if this is true then it is only on the sub species level.
Most people, no matter how evil, have some form of conscience underneath it all. At the very least when they do something wrong they feel guilty about it. Not so spammers. They are shameless. Give them an inch and they don’t just take a mile. They take a light year. They are human cockroaches. They will do anything and everything they can think of to connect you with unwanted advertising. There is no tactic off limit. In fact they have no limits whatsoever. The end justifies the means.
Fortunately my ISP now provides a server based spam filter. It seems to work reasonably well and captures perhaps 95% of the spam. But even so there is a lot of spam that still manages to get through. Since I use ChoiceMail any unsolicited email that gets through the server spam filter gets an automatic challenge email from ChoiceMail. It requires that the emailer to go to their website and fill out a special form for me to receive their email. New emailers have to enter a number or phrase embedded into a graphic on the web site, and provide a written justification on why I should read their unsolicited content. Those who don’t respond end up on my blacklist. Even if they respond I still have the option to reject them manually.
I find it educational to go through my spam occasionally and see what new tactics spammers are using. Lately I’ve been getting emails with excerpts from famous novels. Of course there is at least one embedded linked image that will take me to their site. I guess this is one way to get me to read Stephen King. The hope is that the content will seem legitimate and thus pass through most spam filters. But this is yet one more example, if it were needed, that spammers are soulless scum. Of course they have no qualms about using copyrighted works of others simply to send spam.
As email program spam filters get better with strategies like Bayesian algorithms of course spammers will keep trying cleverer solutions to let the spam through. No doubt you’ve seen some of these. One tactic: create an authentic looking, almost snooty looking email address. In my spam box is an email purportedly from AtlantaBallet.com. For some reason the Atlanta Ballet wants to sell me Bextra. Umm, no, I don’t think so. Spammers may be ingenious at getting the spam through, but they must have oatmeal for brains in the common sense department. If I were in the market for Bextra I certainly wouldn’t buy it from some shady dealer pretending to be the Atlanta Ballet.
Words are also getting subtly mistyped to pass through spam filters. Viagra becomes V1agra. Copy becomes C0py. Affordable becomes Aff0rdable. Do they really think I am going to buy anything from someone who cannot even spell? I don’t think so! And what’s with these ridiculous email addresses? Do they really think I will open up emails from gjfm...@aol.com and Rxe...@manonthemoon.com?
And can someone please terminate these ridiculous Nigerian email scams? Goodness, they were old ten years ago! Every conceivable variation has been tried. There is no one left in the world with an email account that has not received a hundred copies of these. Maybe they snared some naïve people during the first six months, but today even imbeciles know to trash this stuff. And yet it keeps coming and coming.
What really incenses me though are those spammers who use my good name and email address to pass off their spam. Of course my friends are likely to assume the email is from me because it has my name and email address on it. So it sails right through their spam filter because I am in their address book. But now my friends have to treat my email address with suspicion. Perhaps they get 100 emails a day from me that are spam. Perhaps out of frustration they have added me to their blacklist.
If spam were limited just to email then perhaps it would be endurable. But email is yesterday’s spam frontier. Spammers’ tactics are getting increasingly ruthless and non-discriminating. For example, in this blog I routinely average 1-5 fake “comments” a day. Needless to say like all spam this spam is programmed. A computer has sniffed my site, determined that I have a Movable Type weblog, found the CGI program that processes comments (even though I renamed it) and sends a canned HTTP request masquerading as legitimate comments. Fortunately I review all comments before they are published, but I still need to remove them manually. And that means to some extent I still must read them.
But now even blog comment spam is insufficient. The latest twist is to create bogus blog trackback entries. Movable Type is not yet programmed hold trackbacks in a queue for approval. So anyone who looks at a trackback entry before I have a chance to remove it is directed to a spammer’s website.
(Yes, I know about Movable Type plug-ins like MT-Blacklist. It’s of some help, but no silver bullet.)
The response from our legislatures has been anemic. The Can-Spam Act has done nothing of the sort. The government gives lip service to tracking down and prosecuting spammers. In reality there is not much they can do. Spammers can and do move so quickly that law enforcement cannot keep up with them.
I cannot see any short-term solution to this problem. Signing all email with digital certificates could potentially help solve the problem. However a valid digital certificate is easy to acquire. With the right software you can create your own. And just because the email is legitimate doesn’t necessarily mean it is something I want to read. Eventually we will need some newer approach that does away with the drawbacks inherent in our twenty year old SMTP email protocol. Blogs have been suggested as one way to circumvent the problem. Instead of sending email people could leave public or private comments on your blog. But as I have discovered that is a simple magnet for spam too.
Sadly I see no solution on the horizon other than a brand new SMTP-less email architecture. Otherwise it may be that the convenience of email will no longer be worth its hassle. Using snail mail may be time consuming and costly but at least advertisers have to pay for the privilege of putting their fliers in my mailbox. Perhaps some sort of new system where those who send you unsolicited email must pay a fee when you read the email it is the way it will eventually have to be.
One thing is for sure: if the exponential growth of spam on the internet keeps increasing at its current rate eventually there will be no bandwidth left for more prosaic usages like surfing the web. Our whole Internet-based infrastructure could be rendered obsolete by soulless spammers. The good news is that spam would die. The bad news is that electronic commerce as we know it would be gone. So let’s hope a new email system that fixes these defects is embraced before it is too late.
(I’m betting this entry will get its share of comment spam.)