What's New in Technology for May 2001

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This Spam Just Might Eat You!
The headline reads "Spam Takes Revenge - Eats Man!!!" You laugh and think: "Is this another "War of the Worlds" trick, that Orson Welles has come back from the hereafter to play on us? Harrumph, I wouldn't put it past him." Read on.

But the Spam in our story is not about pressed ham, or Orson Welles, but about the enormous volume of unsolicited e-mails that start with a statement something like "This e-mail is never sent unsolicited. If you have received this in error, please click here to unsubscribe to our mailing list."

Of course, correspondence like this may seem, at first, a minor annoyance. However, it can literally kill your productivity by wasting valuable time and there's nothing you can do about it, or is there? That's what we're going to explore in this month's article - what Spam is, the harm it can cause and what you can do to prevent your valuable time from getting gobbled up by Spam.

First of all, what is Spam? Spam is junk e-mail. It is much the same as the supermarket advertisements that flood your mailbox on Thursday. Spam is already in high gear and growing and has become much more than a Thursday afternoon annoyance. Have you ever highlighted a group of messages to permanently delete them, pressed the delete button and started looking for that e-mail you saved with the telephone number of a hot prospect? Pretty annoying, isn't it?

Think about all the viruses running around the Internet. Let's face it, the thinking person in all of us knows to delete anything from someone we don't know, but curiosity (the cat-killing kind) sometimes tempts us to push our luck. One of the tricks a virus-spreading rogue has is to hide the pernicious critter being sent as Spam. It's sometimes hard to resist the home-based business offers that appear to be valid. But the cost can be devastating.

Some of the more common uses of Spam include chain letters, multilevel marketing scheme announcements, links to pornographic web sites, advertising for home based businesses. Many of these efforts use "Mega" mailing lists with millions of "quality" e-mail addresses. While some of these "opportunities" may be from legitimate sources, many are not and you don't know who the legitimate businesses are. So, you are faced with a choice - hit delete or read every e-mail and hope there aren't any viruses attached.

What's the big deal? You choose the "delete" option and it takes only a second to delete the offender. A minute later, you receive another offender, and then another, and then another and so on. True, hitting delete is great if you are only trying to kill one junk message, but when you're faced with five, ten or twenty at a time, the task becomes greater. Even after you delete the offenders out of your In-Box, you must still remember to delete them from the Trash Folder. Otherwise, they will eat up hard disk space.

The relative ease and extremely low cost of sending junk e-mail, have made Spam a very attractive marketing tool. When the Corner Grocery sends it weekly mailer, it bears all the cost of production and sending the mailer. When J.Q. Spam, Esq. sends his daily e-mail, about the only cost he may have is the cost of his time online. You, I, and the rest of the Internet world, on the other hand, bear the bulk of the cost in the form of time and money!

You've heard it said, "Time is Money." Nowhere is that more true than in the Internet world. When J.Q. sends thousands of e-mails, he is tying up bandwidth. That, in turn, decreases the speed with which you and I can obtain the information we want and need. This translates into real dollars spent by the Internet Service Provider by causing the ISP to buy more bandwidth, in order to maintain network speed or dollars spent by you or me if the ISP passes along those costs by raising their rates. Does this sound like we are being trivial or just trying to find ways of supporting an editorial argument?

According to InternetWeek, in 1998, approximately $2 of each customer's monthly Internet service bill results from junk e-mail. A February 2001 study by the European Union estimates junk e-mail costs upwards of $9 to $10 billion worldwide each year.

Not only does J.Q. tie up bandwidth, he also ties up disk space. Most importantly, disk space on the ISP's mail server. This again forces the ISP to make decisions affecting the service and costs to the customer.

Have you ever received a message that your mailbox is getting too full? Did your Aunt Emma in Kansas send you a picture of the family reunion, only to receive it back as undeliverable because the mailbox was stuffed? This could be because most ISPs limit your space on the mail server to 3 to 5 meg. Under normal circumstances this is plenty of room. However, if it's your practice to leave e-mail on the mail server and you have a number of J.Q.'s letters in your in-box, you can soon lose your free space. At this point, you have a choice - potentially miss an important message, buy more space on the server, or spend the time to delete old mail. Whatever way you choose, you lose.

We could go on describing the various negative points of spam, but we will mention only one final one here - annoyance. Doesn't it make your blood boil to be sitting at your computer, typing a long letter and waiting for an important e-mail and you receive fifteen pieces of junk e-mail? This just simply wastes your time.

So, what's the answer to this spam plague - don't go online? That may be a bit drastic, so here are some practical suggestions.

First, take a look at the software already on your system. Most current e-mail programs allow you to set up rules and direct the e-mail coming in your to separate folders. Unfortunately, the more rules you set up, the more rules J.Q. will be able to break because he is going to use a new name and different subject line each time. So while your current programs are a starting point, they aren't the final answer and will not be fully effective.

Another line of defense may be the purchase of the so-called anti-spam software solutions. These solutions can be in the form of either a program that runs on your system or filtering services for your e-mail program. However, following the links below will help you find the various software products and other information to perform your own evaluation:

Zdnet search results on "Anti-Spam Software"
Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial E-Mail (includes various resources) junk e-mail site

There are some things we recommend you do not do.

First of all, we recommend that you don't reply to the e-mail and tell the sender to remove you from their list. Aside from wasting your time by requiring you to tell him to take you off a list you never wanted to be on, J.Q. probably isn't going to listen to your request. Even if he does listen, J.Q. isn't the only Spammer in the world.

Finally, don't expect to get rid of all the spam you receive. Even the most sophisticated filters are not going to catch all of the spam on the Internet. Of necessity, these filters rely on rules and rules are made to be broken. Guess what Spammers are good at - breaking rules.

Although Congress and various states are looking at legislation to curb the proliferation of spam, nothing is set in stone yet. Even when the legislation is passed, enforcement will be extremely difficult. Don't expect stringent enforcement activities to begin anytime soon.

Visiting the sites listed above will give you a greater appreciation of the junk e-mail problem and potential solutions. If you are having a problem with junk e-mail, a visit to the above sites is well worth the time.

One final point to remember - if you don't recognize the sender, don't open the mail.

Until next month, happy surfing and a happy Mothers' Day to all the Mom's in the audience.


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