Spam -Yuck!
Article by Rick Leinecker, April 17, 2006

I received an email from a reader. (By the way, I love hearing from you with questions and comments.) She asked some great questions, and I'm going to share my responses in this column because almost everyone can benefit from the answers. Here's the email I got from this reader:

I have recently (in the past couple of months) been receiving a lot of spam to my current email address. The sender's name usually looks normal, for instance a couple of the last ones I've received are from Dollie Knox and Kerrie Thorne. The subject line says something crazy like "not slavish arcana" or "him bong it befong." And the email is an ad for an investment or medication. I usually don't bother to open them; I guess they're just more annoying than anything.

My questions: The majority of these e-mails I have opened seem to be the same or nearly identical ads. Where are they coming from? Is there anyway to prevent them in the future?

First, let me talk about the CAN-SPAM Act of 2003. This law was passed to cut down on the large numbers of unwanted advertising emails that we all get. The first thing the law does is ban misleading header information, including the "To" and "From" information. Secondly, the subject line cannot be deceptive. Additionally, an opt-out mechanism must be in place that eliminates the emails from the source within ten days. And finally, there must be a valid email address from which the email originated.

The emails that the reader cites apparently violate all of these requirements. The "To" and "From" lines are incorrect (also meaning that the return email address is invalid), the subject lines are misleading, and there is no opt-out mechanism. Shortly after the CAN-SPAM Act went into effect, the spammers who continued with their old tricks were successfully prosecuted. As a result, there is almost no incidence of illegal spamming from within the United States. Chances are, these errant emails originated overseas where prosecution is virtually impossible.

Your next question is probably "why?" That's easy; spam is used to sell a product or service. In the early days, these advertising emails got inexpensive results. Sending spam emails costs almost nothing, and even a low response rate warranted the cost. But it's different now. People don't open emails that look like spam or are suspicious; spam filters catch much of the junk; and firewalls prevent a good bit of spam from reaching the destination. The era of high spam profitability is over, and very few commercial enterprises that undertake spam campaigns make a profit, especially if the spam emails don't look legitimate.

Any company that resorts to unscrupulous spamming techniques may not be who you want to do business with. Before I get in real trouble, though, I want to point out that there are reputable companies who use spam legally - these are not the companies I'm referring to. Anyone who complies with the CAN-SPAM Act is within their legal rights. It's the companies who use questionable spamming tactics with which you need to exercise caution.

There are ways to combat spam. Most of the web-based email providers such as yahoo, hotmail, and msn have effective spam filters that won't let you get a spam email. Many of the most blatant spam emails are thrown away, and others go into a bulk folder so that you can view them.

I have a commercial service that hosts my email domain. They have built in spam controls that I can configure to my liking.

The major Internet Service Providers (ISPs) such as earthlink, aol, and mindspring have spam filters that individual users can configure. (Log on to your ISPs web site, you'll find their specific details.) If you start getting a lot of spam emails that follow a particular pattern, you can add specific filter rules to eliminate them.

Earthlink has an optional mechanism that allows you to receive emails only from senders who you've approved. Each time a new sender who's not in the approved list sends an email, you get a notification and can grant approval if you choose. In this way you can prevent almost all spam emails from getting to your Inbox.

Those are the basics of spam and spam defenses.