Spamming to Stop Spam

Remove.org is a collage of every Happy American meme in the book. On the header, the Statue of Liberty blends into the Lincoln Memorial and Old Glory, while on the right of the text a smiling mom and dad hug their two kids and a Labrador retriever.

The Web site claims that it’s “Protecting Individuals, Families, and Children From Unwanted Solicitations and Pornography.” For only $9.95 a year, it will add your name to its “National Opt Out Directory” and actively pursue marketers who send unwanted emails to its members.

Ultimately, it sounds like a good adjunct to the Federal Do No Call registry, which may help reduce telemarketing calls but does nothing to stop the gush of spam. These often-sleazy unsolicited emails account for nearly half of all email traffic, according to anti-spam software vendor Brightmail.

If only it were that easy.

“The idea that there is some way this organization can get people to stop calling or mailing or spamming you is pretty absurd on its face,” said Ray Everett Church, chief privacy officer for ePrivacy.com. “There is no law that requires [any marketer” to abide by a private list of this sort. All they can do is make a request that these people adhere to their national opt-out directory.”

Worse, it appears that remove.org is marketing itself via spam. An email received by internetnews.com on July 28 from Krista Heartwell, headed “FWD: very concerned,” says, “There is a large problem facing our nation that we all need to work together to fix. My children have received pornographic emails and I want it to stop.” Krista urges the recipient to visit remove.org and to forward the email to everyone he knows.

Remove.org has a phone number and Mailboxes Etc. address in Washington, D.C. Jonathan Angel, who said his title was “probably the interim executive director,” told internetnews.com that this spam was a big mistake. Angel explained that one Sharon Griffon, a member of one of the non-profit organizations that can sign onto the global registry for free, had sent the original email to her friends and associates. An email marketer had somehow gotten hold of the email and spammed it out.

“We have stopped working with that marketer,” Angel said.

Angel said remove.org works with marketing companies that want to make sure their email lists don’t contain names of people who haven’t opted in. His organization will clean such lists at no charge to the business. Although remove.org prominently promises freedom from pornography, Angel said that working with large corporate emailers is the correct approach.

“Look at where the problem exists,” he said. “Most of your problems are not occurring in an isolated [case”. It’s not some kid sitting at home sending out ten billion emails a day. Generally, the large companies are who control the business.” Angel would not name any companies whose lists remove.org has cleaned.

“Legitimate marketers don’t send spam, period,” said Louis Mastria, Director of Public and International Affairs for the Direct Marketing Association. “They wouldn’t want to risk their brand equity sending something unsavory.”

In fact, “That there is some way that remove.org can get people to stop calling or mailing or spamming you is pretty absurd,” Church told internetnews.com.

“Spammers aren’t the least bit interested in removing potential prospects from their lists. On its face,” he said, “remove.org appears to be a cynical attempt to capitalize on people’s desires to be shed of these solicitations and the growing popularity of the national Do Not Call database.”

Church said that in fact, most spammers are individuals sitting alone in a room.

“Spamming as a business is very low-cost to get into. You can get spamming software for anywhere from free to a few hundred dollars,” he said.

Indeed, millions of email addresses can be had for less than the price of a month’s rental at Mailboxes Etc. One recent email to staff at internetnews.com from marie3887k promised:

“We Broadcast E-mail Your Ad to 5 Million People – $129,” adding, “hpcrfrggk fkzdtntkvbcazlcpijdcnelqlszvbwc huupwzuipjywxlyzhvoou” to sweeten the offer.

“If you’re selling something that’s $10 a pop,” Church said, “you only need to get one out of a million people to buy it, and you’ve recovered your costs.”

Spam is more than an annoyance to the person on the other end who unwittingly opens that email with the “info you requested.” It costs business big bucks — an estimated $10 billion in 2003, according to Ferris Research. Pathway Communications, one of Canada’s largest privately own ISPs, spends several thousand dollars a month on hardware and software to filter spam, according to Pathway president Ashok Kalle.

“Spam has a huge cost implication,” Kalle said. “It uses up your resources and wastes time. It’s become a complete menace.” Kalle pointed out that businesses that can’t prove they’ve done everything they can to prevent objectionable material from reaching employees could face suits claiming they’ve allowed a hostile work environment.

Several industry initiatives are brewing that aim to make a difference. Three bills are before Congress, with the Burns-Wyden “CAN-SPAM Act” getting the most attention. Church is acts as general council to the Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial E-mail (CAUCE), which advocates strong legislation to stop spam. CAUCE objects to the Burns-Wyden because it doesn’t specify opt-in and that it doesn’t allow individuals the right to sue spammers for damages.

The DMA supports all three, according to Mastria, and it’s also working on its own de-spaminating service. Mastria said the DMC wants rules for commercial emails that prohibit lying in the subject line or forging the header. They should insist that the email have a physical street address and an opt-out link that actually works.

“We don’t think legislation by itself is the answer,” Mastria said. Its cornerstone is the “Silver Platter Program,” in which the DMA will use its technology resources to track down spammers that hide behind phony addresses and hand them over to law enforcement. Members who promise to abide by best industry practices could sign onto its “gold list.” ISPs could filter out all commercial emails that didn’t come from gold list members, saving them lots of time, reducing the amount of spam for their customers — and providing quite an advantage to DMA members.

For now, relief from the pleas of Nigerian widows and body part enhancers may remain the job of the lonely individual.

“Legislation won’t have much of an impact for the same reason I don’t think remove.org will make much of an impact,” privacy expert Dave Nielsen told Internetnews.com. “Many spammers work off-shore and operate out of the reaches of law enforcement.”

Nielsen, who operates fightidentiytheft.com, said that advanced filtering software that uses collaborative intelligence is the best remedy. Subscribers to the filtering service report spam back to a central server, so the filter keeps getting smarter. Said Nielsen, “That kind of service is the only thing that’s going to stop spam.”

The other solution would be for someone to help that Nigerian widow get her money out of the country. The spate of spam would immediately drop by half.

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