In the Press

Spam and Its Victims

Glenn Berkshier recently set up a new e-mail account on his computer, one of many accounts that he maintains. The knowledgeable techie and professional Webmaster for Stellar Systems, Inc., a Peoria-based Internet service provider, used a new e-mail address that at the time was known by, and available to, about 10 other people on Earth.

The names of the winners of Survivors I and II should have been so secret. Yet, when he logged on for the first time, he had a dozen messages waiting in his electronic mailbox.

They were all junk.

"There is literally no way you can explain how anybody got that address as fast as they did and sent me their junk mail," Berkshier said. "It's frustrating, but it's just the way it is."

There was a hint of, what - depression? vexation? sheepishness? - in his voice. After all, Webmaster Berkshier is paid to solve the problems that crop up online every day in a technological world so complex and vast that no one person can understand more than a small fraction of it. And, a computer expert admitting there are occasionally computer questions for which there are no immediate answers is a little like a professional wrestler admitting the bouts (warning to WWF fans: Stop reading here) are scripted.

"Some things," Berkshier said, "you just can't explain."

Still, we're going to try. As the use of e-mail works its way into the American center, the problem with electronic junk mail has been expanding exponentially. There are literally millions of potential "spammers" - people who blanket-send the junk or "spam" mail that clogs up electronic mailboxes, wastes the time of recipients weary of deleting the unwanted items, and infuriates those who have found no good way to halt the torrent - at work around the globe.

And increasingly those messages are taking on bluer tones. Littered among the business come-ons to make a million dollars - without having to change out of your pajamas or set down the TV remote control - are all sorts of messages to buy Viagra online, increase the size of a specific male body part and learn ways to attract members of the opposite sex chemically, herbally, holistically, or some unexplained combination of the three.

Still other messages tread the gray area between potentially pornographic ("wet slippery teen hardcore") and the just plain inappropriate and stupid ("free adult site franchises").

Who's sending this stuff? Why are they allowed to? How can you stop it? Those were the questions we sought to answer after collecting for a couple of weeks all the questionable e-mail messages received at a e-mail address. We stopped collecting when we had plenty of material with which to work.

It didn't take long.

Spam is flooding the Internet with many copies of the same message, in an attempt to force the message on people who would not otherwise choose to receive it, that's the definition provided by, an online organization that promotes responsible Net commerce. E-mail spam lists are often created by scanning Usenet postings, stealing Internet mailing lists or searching the Web for addresses.

Often times, spammers will discover a tasty list of e-mail addresses and, not wanting to blow their cover, send their message out to small groups of them at a time, Berkshier said. It can be the reason why office workers will all get the same unwanted solicitation - "awesome japanese schoolgirls" made the rounds in the Journal Star newsroom recently - but on different days. Berkshier said its a way to slip large - but not unusually "red-flag" large - numbers of messages by the mail server without causing attention to itself.

"Too many messages are going to cause the server to notice and trace back the sender to put a stop to it," Berkshier said.

A case in Washington state gives an inside look at what spammers are capable of, and perhaps where the laws of the nation are headed.

Washington passed a "truth-in-spam" law a little more than two years ago. The statute required that those who send out unsolicited commercial e-mail - spam - may not use misleading information in the e-mail's subject line, mask its origins or contain an invalid reply address, according to an article in the Seattle Times. All three are common practices used by spammers to protect their identities and entice people to open their messages.

But a Washington judge called the statute "unduly restrictive and burdensome" and places a burden on businesses that outweighs its benefits to consumers, wrote the Seattle Times. In doing so, the judge freed from liability a man doing business as "Natural Instincts" who allegedly sent between 100,000 and 1 million pieces of unsolicited e-mails a week. The state alleged he sold between 30 and 50 of his "How to Profit From the Internet" packages at $39.95 a piece.

"Obviously the reason the spam problem keeps getting bigger is because, done the right way, it can be profitable," Berkshier said.

There are ways to minimize the problem, but eliminating it is nearly impossible, Berkshier said. Even so-called solutions are problematic. Filters exist that stop certain e-mails before reaching your computer, but say they aren't always effective. Why? Three reasons.

1. "There's too much," junkbusters says. The amount of spam is growing day by day with no signs of an abatement in volume. Filtering means you, your ISP and your system have to work harder to filter out junk mail.

2. You still get spam. In order for this to work, you have to receive the spam in the first place. Your time, money and energy, not to mention huge amounts of bandwidth - the excess costs of which are passed on to you in the form of higher access fees - from your Internet service provider, and the rest of the Internet.

3. It doesn't work. Period. Most spam is forged in some fashion, making it impossible to determine the origin. In addition, many spammers are using software which modifies things like the subject line slightly with each message, or disguising spam to look like personal mail. No matter what filtering mechanism is built, spammers will find a way around it.

Also, many junk e-mails offer what looks to be a way to not receive any more from that particular sender by just hitting the reply button. Berkshier said that rarely works because the reply buttons are bogus. The delete button works to get rid of mail that reaches your mailbox, but it does nothing to stop more from coming in.

"It's sort of a personal crusade of mine to find a way to curtail this," Berkshier said. "It drives me insane but the people doing the spamming are staying one step ahead of the technology and one step ahead of the law. They're operating in areas where laws don't even exist yet."

Other sites that offer suggestions to combat e-mail abuse are (The Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial E-mail), and Spamcop offers a free service that notifies network administrators of spamming problems.

But the bottom line is there is little that can be done, at least until laws are made to restrict access to personal computers by junk-mailers or to make it less enticing for spammers to blanket electronic mailboxes with saucy come-ons.

CAUCE supports a proposal to create a technological standard notification method that wouldn't allow spammers to hide beneath an umbrella of ignorance when it comes to sending torrents of junk e-mail.

Writes CAUCE: "Many Internet service providers have clear policies against sending bulk unsolicited commercial e-mail into their systems. However, in order for such a policy to have legal weight, the sender of the e-mail must have notice of the policy. At present there is no efficient means for an e-mail sender to know what a recipient's policy is before sending the mail, and there is no efficient means for a recipient to communicate their policy to a sender until after a large volume of mail has been received."

CAUCE says the technology exists now that would give providers the muscle to halt mass-mailings before they get sent. Until Internet providers have that legal weight to enforce their own policies, however, there may be little legal recourse.

"Right now," Berkshier said, "spam is just a fact of life."

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Author: Scott Hilyard
Date: 5/8/2001
Publication: Peoria Journal Star

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