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Spring 2004

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Would you like spam with that?

by Bret Ingerman

If you’re like most e-mail users, you’re being swamped with unwanted advertisements—to reverse baldness, lose weight, help move money from an overseas bank, enlarge one of your body parts, or buy discounted pharmaceuticals without a prescription. It’s electronic junk mail, widely known as “spam,” and it’s booming.

Recent news stories have suggested that over 50 percent of all e-mail traveling the Internet is spam. (At Skidmore, our e-mail server processes about 150,000 messages a day. Of that, we automatically reject about 10 percent because it has a subject line that’s known to be from a spammer or a virus-carrier. But plenty of spam inevitably slips through.) As inconvenient or offensive as it may be, spam continues because a small percentage of its recipients actually try to buy the goods or services advertised.

When women receive ads for men’s products or renters get mortgage refinancing offers, they may wonder, “Why me? Why do I get this stuff?” Spammers aren’t targeting you individually; they’re just sending to any e-mail addresses they can get their hands on. More than likely, the spammers bought your e-mail address from a company you’ve done business with, or on whose Web site you provided your contact information. They can also “harvest” addresses by scanning Web sites and e-mail lists or by using software “robots” to look for addresses.

If you’d like to reduce the spam you receive, never reply to it, not even to complain or ask that it stop. Why? Spammers reason that people who bother to glance at ads (at least long enough to object) are more likely to be influenced by advertising. Any reply helps target you as a potential buyer.

In the US some states require spam to contain an “opt-out” clause, inviting you to reply to a certain address in order to be removed from the mailing list. But spammers are notorious for providing fake return addresses or using a technique known as “spoofing” to make their messages look like they came from a different computer system. Since there’s no way of knowing a legitimate spammer from an unsavory one, you’re better off not responding to spam. At all. Ever.

Doing business online also increases the risk of attracting spam. Many online retailers have policies stating that they may (read: probably will) share your e-mail address with their “partners.” Before filling out online forms, look for the company’s privacy policy—on reputable Web sites you’ll find an obvious link to it on or near the forms. A privacy statement will tell you how, why, and with whom the company may share your information. But remember, if you have second thoughts about a company, you should have second thoughts about its privacy policy.

A final defense is spam-filtering software. Many new e-mail programs already contain spam filters, and many Internet service providers now offer them to customers. (At Skidmore we offer them to all students, faculty, and staff.) Filters look for messages that show a long list of addresses in the “to:” or “cc:” line, a routing path from an e-mail server known to send spam, one of those “opt-out” clauses, or uppercase text like “BUY NOW!” The filters flag these messages as spam or simply delete them. But they’re not foolproof: they can mistakenly condemn a nonspam message or fail to spot some nuisance mail. Spammers, of course, always try to stay one step ahead of the programmers who write the filter software, so it helps to keep your filter up to date by downloading the newest version as soon as it becomes available.

By the way, ever wonder why it’s called “spam”? Hormel Foods, manufacturer of the popular spiced ham in a can, believes it comes from the Monty Python comedy skit in which a group of Vikings raucously sing the praises of Spam. Hormel suggests (at www.spam.com) that junk e-mail was nicknamed “spam” for its increasing volume that’s drowning out other e-mail.

Skidmore's chief technology officer, Bret Ingerman directs the center for information technology services.


© 2004 Skidmore College