AOL Moves to Thwart New Forms of Spam

America Online is changing its anti-spam policy in order to foil what could be the next spam onslaught: unwanted instant messages, colloquially known as “spim.”

Andrew Weinstein, a spokesman for AOL, said the ISP has expanded its definition of spam to include bulk instant messages that are starting to proliferate in AOL’s popular chat rooms.

The updated policy, AOL’s first in five years, makes clear that any unsolicited bulk communications are prohibited under users’ Terms of Service agreement, Weinstein said. “For members who spend a fair amount of time in chat rooms, [spim] has become a significant issue for them,” he told internetnews.com.

Weinstein said the updated anti-spam policy, which takes effect August 3rd, also takes into account the changing nature of the online medium with the growth in popularity of instant messaging. He said a small but growing number of AOL members who use the chat rooms frequently are seeing an increase in automated IM messages from software bots that go into the chat rooms and harvest the members’ IM handles.

“For our general members, it is a small but growing problem, but one we will address if it becomes larger,” he said.

As previously reported, the upcoming release of AOL’s version 9.0 will also include new features designed to help members manage their IM lists and block out bulk IMs from bots.

Called IMCatcher, the feature helps subscribers avoid IMs from unknown senders, while allowing them an opportunity to add new Buddies.

Instead of the way that an IM usually pops-up on a user’s screen, IMCatcher adds all new incoming messages from unknown senders to a list that’s located in the lower part of the AOL user interface. Users can click to view the IMs and add their senders to their Buddy List, or can block a sender without having to open their message.

“It’s most useful for people that are getting spimmed from IM robots,” said Weinstein. “It makes it easier for members to manage IMs they receive from people they don’t know, including unsolicited IMs.”

At the same time, AOL is also moving to curb spam on another front. Beginning this week, AOL is introducing new enhancements for dial-up users who are also paying for the service’s Voicemail and Call Alert — a feature that announces when a user receives a phone call while they’re online.

Now, those users have a new feature that helps subscribers cut down on annoying computer-dialed telemarketing calls — “phone spam.”

It works like this: by selecting the “I Don’t Know You” response in AOL Call Alert, users’ phones will send a special tone in response to an incoming call. To some auto-dialing telemarketing computers, the tone appears to indicate that the number dialed has been disconnected, making the computer drop the call and delete the number from its call list.

As with other commercial anti-telemarketer products, if the caller is a person rather than a computer, AOL said they would still hear a warning message after the tone. Although the feature won’t eliminate telemarketing, it’s aimed to reduce the unwanted calls that users receive while they’re online, an AOL spokesman said.

AOL also now enables Call Alert users to use Caller-ID features to screen or block incoming calls from anonymous numbers.

In addition to the newest slate of privacy updates to features for dialup users, AOL said it plans later this summer to update Call Alert so that subscribers with a single phone line in the home would be able to answer calls while online.

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