When The Junk Mail Fairy Comes

Dealing with spam

First Published: Auctionrover.com
Date Published: 2000
Copyright © 2000 by Kevin Savetz

Anyone who uses the Internet knows about "spam" -- those advertisements that arrive in e-mail, pushing porn sites and make-money-fast scams, questionable investment offers and long-distance phone service.

Unfortunately, avoiding these daily invasions of privacy is just about impossible. In order to ply you with junk, all the spammers need is your e-mail address -- and there are dozens of ways they can get it. Spammers gather, or "harvest," addresses with a simple computer program that searches the Internet for them. If you have a Web page, post to Usenet newsgroups, or chat on a mailing list, for instance, your e-mail address is out there. If you buy or sell on an auction site, your address is equally susceptible to plucking.

While some spammers are content to carpet-bomb their tripe on everyone with an e-mail address, some prefer to be more careful, targeting people who might plausibly be interested in whatever they've got to offer. For instance, spammers advertising an auction service might want to harvest the addresses of people who already participate in online auctions. This is exactly what the owners of a site called ReverseAuction did late last year: they trolled eBay for members' e-mail addresses, then spammed those users with e-mail about ReverseAuction.

Sometimes the spam messages aren't simply advertisements -- they can be misleading messages that seem to come from elsewhere. The ReverseAuction message, for example, misled some recipients into believing that their eBay accounts were about to expire.

When you register with eBay (or any online auction, for that matter) you must provide your e-mail address. eBay gives its users the option of using a user ID or e-mail address as identification, but choosing a user ID doesn't protect your e-mail address from prying eyes. There are legitimate reasons someone might need to find out your e-mail address to complete a transaction. On eBay, this can be done with the Find Members page. (http://cgi3.ebay.com/aw-cgi/eBayISAPI.dll?MemberSearchShow) The same tool can be used by spammer to look up e-mail addresses: it's trivial to break through the thin layer of protection offered by user IDs.

In the end, there isn't much you can do about spam. The best revenge is to simply delete the junk mail and refuse to buy the product or visit the Web site that's being touted. (This usually doesn't take much willpower -- if the stuff being advertised was any good, the sellers wouldn't have to resort to such a lowlife method of promoting it.)

Some people -- you might call them anti-spam activists -- promote complaining to the spammers' Internet service providers, perhaps causing the miscreants to see the error of their ways, or at least lose their Internet access. Simply replying to the mail is not enough: your complaint will most likely bounce back, unread. If you have the time and inclination to complain, visit www.abuse.net, a helpful site that gives information on reporting and controlling Internet abuse.

Articles by Kevin Savetz