Thursday, 21 March, 2002

Spam, Spam, Spam

I get so much email these days, most of it junk, that I often just delete anything that's from somebody I don't know and doesn't have a subject that I recognize.  I especially view with suspicion any message marked as "high priority" or "urgent", because that's one of the tricks that spammers use to entice you to open a message.  And just opening a message these days is enough to send a confirmation message to whoever sent the original.  All a spammer has to do is embed an "image" link in an HTML format message, and when you view the message, the link is accessed.  That link will include an identification string (your email address, or perhaps a number that they resolve to your email address), and all of a sudden, you've been confirmed as an "active" email address.  Stealth delivery confirmation.  Neat trick, that.

Companies that offer rebates or refunds know all about hiding in plain site.  If you've ever applied for a rebate, you've likely seen the rebate check come in looking like a piece of junk mail—a bulk mail letter that looks like a sweepstakes come-on, or a check printed on a cheap postcard.  They're counting on you mistaking the rebate check for a piece of junk mail and throwing it in the trash.  I'm convinced that the 8-week wait for delivery is so that you'll forget that you applied for the rebate. 

The junk email problem is starting to cause problems for some of our clients who send email messages to people asking them to take surveys.  Even if a potential respondent has been contacted by phone and agrees to take the survey before we even send the email message, we only get about a 25% response rate.  I'm sure that some of the people just forgot, and some others feel more comfortable ignoring the mail than they do saying "No" on the telephone, but three quarters of them?  It hardly seems likely.  I think it's that they see an email from somebody they don't recognize, and just delete it out of habit.

A year ago, I scoffed at people who said that spam was a big problem.  I still think that it's easy enough to delete unwanted messages, but when the volume gets so high that it causes us to overlook legitimate messages, then it's gone too far.  This is a technology problem that we should be able to solve with technology rather than legislation (which could only make things worse).  I still think that there's merit to my proposed "trusted" network (seeMay 15, 2001).  It's at least worth considering, isn't it?  I don't understand why the Internet community is just complaining about the problem to Congress rather than taking steps to solve the problem.