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Spam Makes Me Mad!

Like everyone else on the planet with an email address, I suffer a daily bombardment of spam.

Wednesday was quite typical with 240 messages finding their way to my corporate email inbox. A mind-boggling 116 of them (or roughly 48 percent) were unsolicited commercial emails. And that total doesn't even include several personal financial appeals from various luminaries in Nigeria, where apparently I am held in rather high regard.

Here's a small, random sampling of Wednesday's spambag:

  • Discounted Birkenstocks (Note: I've never worn them, nor to my knowledge have I ever visited a Birkenstock-related Web site.)
  • Finally ... a GREAT Sunless Tanner (I am not in the market for a sunless tanner -- great, adequate or otherwise.)
  • A Real Cure For Baldness! (No comment.)
  • Live Hotties (Hey, what is this, a deposition?)

You get the picture. For users, spam is a time-wasting, and increasingly offensive, annoyance. For IT professionals, spam is an ongoing nightmare, draining resources and bandwidth and creating security hazards in the form of hidden viruses and worms. Last year alone, spam cost U.S. corporations a whopping $8.9 billion.

And the situation has been getting worse. The amount of spam clogging email boxes in 2002 quadrupled over the previous year. This year, spam is expected to double again, accounting for 50 percent of corporate email. (Well, at least I've almost topped out.)

It's no wonder, then, that nearly three-quarters of online users told a recent Harris Poll that they favor making spamming illegal.

This rising intolerance is catching the attention of politicians and other lawmakers eager to claim credit for stanching the flow of unsolicited emails. A Manhattan Supreme Court just issued an injunction prohibiting MonsterHut from further engaging in "fraudulent, deceptive and illegal acts and practices" regarding its claim that recipients of more than 500 million commercial emails sent since March 2001 had "opted in," or granted permission to send the pitches. (See story.)

Nearly half the states in the U.S. have approved anti-spam legislation of one kind or another, and the Federal Trade Commission routinely files complaints against spammers it believes are running scams such as pyramid schemes and chain letters soliciting money.

Based on what I've read about MonsterHut's practices -- most notably its alleged failure to honor requests from at least 750,000 consumers to be taken off their email lists -- the company was asking to be busted. And the FTC's efforts to uncover email rip-off artists who are out to steal money from or the identities of innocent people certainly must continue.

Placating the angry mob

Still, as much as I deplore spam, there's something about lawmakers rushing to please an angry mob that makes me nervous. After all, defining spam isn't necessarily easy. It's not simply a matter of "I know it when I see it."

For example, in my tally for Wednesday's email, I didn't count as spam a number of unsolicited messages that were IT-related, though not relevant to my job. Someone else -- especially an angry someone else -- might classify those as spam.

I also didn't include invitations to attend various conferences and trade shows. I get these because I signed up for several newsletters (which I subsequently never read) and agreed to receive information regarding a select number of topics. But what if I decide that I'm getting too many of those emails? Are they suddenly spam?

I prefer technology solutions, but they only go so far. Jupitermedia's IT pros stop more than half of the spam before it can reach individual mailboxes by employing a couple of techniques we'll keep right under our hats over here. But a lot still gets through because spammers can be relentless, clever and relentless. And with spam volume expected to double this year, companies either will be overwhelmed or forced to allocate more resources merely to keep up.

The bottom line is that legislative and judicial efforts to control or even eliminate spam are inevitable. Further, given the steep cost spam exacts on companies struggling to survive in a down economy, the impending crackdowns also are welcome. Let's hope, however, that any new laws don't create other, unforeseen, problems.

Maybe I'm an optimist, but I look forward to a day when spam will no longer seriously drain corporate resources, a day when employees are able to use the time now wasted processing junk email to increase their own efficiency. And when that day comes, I will finally be able to help my Nigerian friends.