SPAM SPAM SPAM

This is our Anti-SPAM page. Feel free to send any comments or questions. Sorry, but no guarantee of a response.

Why are they doing this?

In the beginning there were the Pythons and they begat the SPAM sketch. (The latter link is to iTunes. If you don't know what that is you should find out.)

With the explosion of the Internet came opportunities to make money through online advertising. Internet advertising generates no income unless people visit websites. Advertisers therefore drifted into online direct marketing to promote the sites containing the adverts.

Marketers come in smart and dumb flavours. The smart ones know that, however cheap the message, the hit rate from a shotgun approach will be excruciatingly low. The dumb ones reckon they can make a business out of blasting us with their unsolicited messages.

Pythonesque logic led to unsolicited marketing messages being known as SPAM.

Personally, I label any unsolicited message as SPAM. However, if I've subscribed at your site or if I know you, I do not have a problem with you mailing me. If I don't then I rather resent the time I have to spend deleting your unwanted messages.

If everyone supposedly ignores SPAM why do people keep sending it? Two reasons: because people do read it willingly and because they read it accidentally. Better still for these criminal spammers, some people actually buy the often unsavoury, stolen or defective items on offer. As they do that they perpetuate the problem.

Latterly SPAM has an even more dangerous streak. Just for fun, malcontents are using SPAM to propagate their nasty viruses. More reason for all of us to take defensive action.

Should governments legislate? Yes, but the spammers have already gone offshore so that would have little or no effect. Should Microsoft fix the problem? Well, they've been trying and are still trying to do so. At this point, however, it's a huge problem and beyond even their resources. No, it's up to us all to fight the fight.

What's a person to do?

A myriad of possible techniques are available to help us help ourselves to live with the problem. We cover a few of them here, starting with the big 3:

  1. Never buy anything offered in this way. I have to admit fancying the odd product featured in a SPAM message. The rule I make is, if I must buy it, do not respond to the SPAM but buy from a reputable outlet. To buy as a result of SPAM would be to directly fund their future spamming activities.
  2. Never reply to SPAM. "Take me off your list" to a spammer means "I confirm this address is a real one - please distribute it (sell it) to your fellow spammers". There are only a few of these guys generating over 60% of worldwide email traffic today.
  3. Never read SPAM. In any SPAM message you will typically find a 'bot. This is an invisible device that sends a confirmation back to the SPAM central. It does much the same thing as replying. Your address gets validated and distributed. You may think you are not reading SPAM but if you have a mail preview window open then you usually are. My advice: Shut that window!

With those points covered we can move on to the next set of recommendations.

  1. Signing up on websites: If you must do it be very selective. If in any doubt as to whether the site is run by trustworthy people then use a "disposable" address. This is one that you do not need medium-term. If it gets a lot of SPAM you can cut it loose. Hotmail, Yahoo and others provide these.
  2. Use the filtering facilities of Outlook (or whatever mail client you use) to build your own "black-list". These allow you to get rid of some of the really dumb stuff like Nigerian Viagra by setting up a series of rules. This can be timeconsuming but not as much so as deleting all the messages.
  3. You could consider using PC-based anti-SPAM tools. These are essentially filters that are set up for you. The problem with these is that they could block legitimate mail too. However, the best tool vendors maintain very good black-lists.
  4. Managed mail services such as that provided by MessageLabs, though pricey, represent a much better solution. These perform filtering server-side so that the bad mail never reaches your PC. Those that are professionally managed are exceptionally good at filtering SPAM and not blocking the good mail that you want.
  5. Server-side filtering can also be done for less outlay by building your own server-side filters. This is a labour of love but some of us have found it good enough. An extreme option is to switch to "white-lists" where, for example, you only allow incoming mail from people that you have previously mailed.

Help for Marketers

Suppose you are a legitimate direct marketer - someone who has explicit permission to mail your contacts. How do you make sure your mails get through all the countermeasures mentioned above.

  1. Firstly do not use "blind carbon copy". As this is so often used by spammers doing bulk mail on the cheap most corporate mail systems not block this.
  2. Be a legitimate source of mail. This means making sure your mail is sent from an address within a domain associated with the sending server. Any mail that does not meet this criterion could be seen as an attempt to anonymise the message and will usually be blocked.
  3. Use a correct mail format as defined by the Internet Task Force's MIME specifications. Form a usability point of view "multpart alternative" is a useful option. This is where HTML and text versions of the message are both send in the same envelope, making the mail useful to most readers.
  4. Avoid attachments and never send attachments that are very large or which contain executable code. There is really no reason for an attachment to any large mailing. Put the attachment on a website and simply refer to it in your message.
  5. Track your responses. This lets you detect bad addresses and remove them from your mailing list. Try to resist putting tracking 'bots in your messages. It's better to let your recipients respond if they want to.

The Holy Grail

Anti-SPAM advocates have been spending a lot of time locked in hotel basements trying to find a way to change the global email system. They want to detect and block the bad guys across the whole net. They've come up with proposals that look promising. However, they have yet to reach agreement. Commercial realities make it hard for players like Microsoft and AOL to agree on the way forward. Agreement, however, is the key to changing the world of email. Let's hope for a breakthrough in this area soon.

Confused? You may well be. Please contact us if you need more help than this note provides. We help small and medium sized clients to set better email policies and, where appropriate, to implement them.

Paul Tanner Oct '04.

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