Electronic Design

E-Mail Spam: Enough Is Enough! The Time For Action Is Now!

I don't know how they do it, but spammers offering everything from new credit cards to mortgages to pleasure-enhancing products manage to find their way into my e-mail inbox. This invasion has morphed my mood from one of amusement to one of frustration as these messages now account for 25% of the 140 or so e-mails I get on a daily basis.

E-mail filters work for the regular transgressors and can eliminate some of the spam that includes keywords in the subject field. But spammers have developed many approaches that can get around most filter options. Messages often mimic replies to an inquiry. Sometimes they appear to be a message from a coworker. Sometimes they tempt you by claiming you won a prize. Spammers use a countless number of other scams to try to trick you into opening their messages, too. Though many of the messages are innocuous, I've encountered a few that contained viruses or other constructs that shut down my e-mail software and forced me to reboot my system.

In these days of continuous time pressure to get projects done, spam is very counterproductive. It causes lost work time, increases IT department activity, and impacts various budgets. Yet even as time becomes more precious, spammers seem to be increasing their efforts, sometimes doubling or tripling the number of messages they send to each e-mail address.

What can be done about these unwanted messages, though, is a question everyone faces. When filters can't do the job, your e-mail program can offer few alternatives. So if we can't do anything on the receiving end, what can or should we do to make it harder for these marketers to send out their spam?

Many if not all spammers use some sort of stealth scheme to keep their actual e-mail address a secret. So, it's almost impossible to reply directly to the offending company to either ask them to stop or to spam them back. And there are horror stories about those who do reply to a spam message and request to be removed from the list. All these requests do in many cases is confirm a valid address for spammers to use again. With some of the latest software tools at their disposal, spammers can generate thousands of messages to whatever base e-mail address was contained in the request to discontinue the e-mail.

Since many spammers don't play by the current rules, and since today's rules don't have enough teeth or harsh enough penalties to convince spammers to mend their ways, perhaps we have to change the rules.

One critical issue, though, is the way spammers can hide their identity. Tracking down the actual originator over the Internet is not a simple task. Should laws be enacted to give recipients or law-enforcement agencies easier access to account information to better trace the offending company?

Additionally, what types of penalties should be enacted to convince the offending companies that they will be better off playing by established rules and courtesies? Could spam be classified as a public nuisance or as some sort of corporate "attack" since it drains corporate resources? Should the companies—the Internet service providers—who let spammers operate be forced to impose various restrictions on their spamming customers, increasing the cost to spammers to the point where it becomes too expensive to e-mail so indiscriminately? Perhaps there should be strong financial penalties or even jail time for repeat offenders.

There is no easy answer to these issues. Some solutions may also tread on our personal freedoms and our own ability to roam the Internet as anonymously as we would like. The Internet has grown into a tremendous public resource, and I would like to see it stay that way. But we really have to find ways to stop the handful of overly aggressive marketing companies from spoiling it for everyone else.

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