Friday, December 19, 2003

Bloody Vikings!

On some level, spam e-mail is just like junk mail.  Why can’t people just use their Delete key and get rid of it, just like tossing (or recycling) paper junk mail?  That’s what I do.  (And it doesn’t even waste paper.)

On the other hand, let’s look at some of the negative issues which surround it:
  • There’s an awful lot of it.  I have a half-dozen or more e-mail addresses I deal with every day, and I get a minimum of 50 spam items a day, probably closer to 100.  But I also make use of spam blockers at work and with my home e-mail ISP.  The former blocks maybe a dozen a day, while I check the latter every three weeks and clear out more than 1000 items each time, making for another 50-plus items each day which I don’t have to delete directly.
  • I have DSL at home and a LAN at work, so the impact of getting a single spam message — or even a few dozen — is minimal, a matter of seconds to download it all, usually in the background while I do other tasks.  My mother, on the other hand, uses dial-up with a 56K modem, so the impact for her of getting spam is 10 times as much or more.
  • Spam items are usually just a text or HTML message, but some contain graphics.  Again, for me with high-speed connections, downloading a 100K spam e-mail is a matter of a few seconds, but for someone on dial-up, it can be a minute or more for each message like that.
  • I’m on a lot of e-mail lists and Yahoo! groups, so I get a lot of legitimate e-mail every day, probably 4-5 times as much as the spam I get.  As a result, dealing with the spam is a small part of my e-mail time, especially since I don’t need to reply to them or otherwise deal with them in depth.  If my daily amount of real e-mail was in the range of only a dozen or so items, a couple dozen spam e-mails would drown out and hide the real stuff.
  • I’m a very process-oriented person, and I’m quick to pick up on patterns.  (Dealing with a couple hundred e-mails every day, you have to be.)  As a result, I can usually tell just from the subject line that it’s spam and thus never have to open it.  (Anything saying “girls”, “viagra”, “xanax”, or with no subject at all is spam.)  Less savvy people may open every item to be sure it’s not legitimate, and thus take half a minute with each item where I take half a second.
  • Many spam items come as HTML with embedded graphics, content which doesn’t come with the e-mail but gets downloaded from a server at open time, just like visiting a web page.  Thus, what takes 2K to download as e-mail can then load hundreds of KB more when you view it, making people wait wait wait that much longer.
  • Once the item is in your Inbox, it appears to take the same amount of space as anything else (one line per item), but if you look more closely (and have the mail program UI set to show it), you can see the size listed for each item.  Comparing to junk mail, that would be like seeing your mailbox stuffed with envelopes, but when you pull them out, finding that some have cleverly concealed bricks inside.
  • HTML-coded spam sends a request back to a server, especially is the graphics are server based rather than embedded.  That request may be able to carry the e-mail address the message was sent to, and thus just by opening the message to see what it is, you send a message saying “We’ve got a live one!  Send more spam!”
  • Paper junk mail is often legitimate on some level: it was sent by a real company which is trying to sell you a real product or service (admittedly, sometimes a scam, but typically real), but they are doing it basically blindly, since they don’t already know you are someone who might be interested.  Some spam is like this, but most has false return addresses, subject lines intended to mislead (not that “check enclosed” or “date-sensitive information” on junk mail aren’t in that class, too; if the envelope says “this is important!”, it probably isn’t), and spam messages point to sites unrelated to what the message is about.
  • There’s an awful lot of porn flying about.  Really, my mother isn’t interested in making her penis larger or in seeing Suzy do it with a Great Dane.  (Frankly, neither am I.  I’m gay, not into animals, and my a penis is already long and thick enough, thank you very much.)  Imagine if junk mail delivered by the post office had such text splattered all of the envelope!
In the end, most (99.9%) spam is intended to mislead, to block the ability of ISPs to send and deliver legitimate e-mail, and generally to bring down the infrastructure of the Internet.  Somewhere between malicious and terrorist, frankly.  (Yeah, that last term is extreme, but realize the effect these spammers have.  While not intending to cause fear and terror, they sometimes are attempting to disrupt international communications and destroy legitimate commerce.  That ain’t the equivalent of jaywalking.)

I met one of the spammers (as he called it, “e-mail direct marketing”) who was active around 1997 or so.  He tried to use marketing “Dilbert-isms” to explain why his sending unsolicited and unwanted e-mails was a good thing, but in the end, he was unconvincing: the spammer was just a scammer.  The ones today deserve to have the book thrown at them.  (Make it a heavy one, please.)

[Weblog title reference: Monty Python’s Flying Circus did a sketch involving the breakfast meat SPAM.  It involved Vikings in the background singing about how lovely and wonderful SPAM is, until they get so loud and abundant that they drown out the rest of the sketch.  And thus junk e-mail is called “spam”.]

Updated on November 2, 2010
These days, I’m up to 10 or so e-mail accounts I get mail from every day — different types of messages go to different accounts.  I no longer check the spam filters (my old ISP no longer even makes viewing the filtered spam doable), except at work when I know something I sent there form one of my own accounts didn’t come through.  (Those are usually messages with just a picture or a URL attached — high on the list of potential spam, although of course they aren’t, but the computer can’t reliably know that.)

I removed a bullet point above which implied that virus packages could come with HTML e-mails.  I don’t believe that was ever true.

An additional term has been created for e-mail messages which you in theory expect to get, but which clutter your Inbox because while you want them, you don't want them now: bacn (“bacon”).  Things falling in this class would be Facebook updates, specials from your favorite airline, ads from the candy company you ordered from last Christmas, etc.  (I get at least three a week from Shepler’s western wear, which results in me never reading any of them.  If it was one every two weeks, maybe I would order something, but why would I ever bother with this frequency?  I complained once, but they said they couldn't change the setting.  Really?)

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