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Would you like spam with that?
by Bret Ingerman
If youre like most e-mail users, youre being swamped with unwanted advertisementsto reverse baldness, lose weight, help move money from an overseas bank, enlarge one of your body parts, or buy discounted pharmaceuticals without a prescription. Its electronic junk mail, widely known as spam, and its 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 thats 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 mens products or renters get mortgage refinancing offers, they may wonder, Why me? Why do I get this stuff? Spammers arent targeting you individually; theyre 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 youve 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 youd 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 theres no way of knowing a legitimate spammer from an unsavory one, youre better off not responding to spam. At all. Ever.
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 theyre 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 its 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 thats drowning out other e-mail.
Skidmore's chief technology officer, Bret Ingerman directs the center for information technology services.