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Spam has choicer cuts

August 10, 1998
Web posted at: 2:15 PM EDT

by Dana Gardner


(IDG) -- Whether they like it or not, IT managers will need to develop a taste for good and bad spam.

Just as legions of users decry the defilement of their inboxes from cheesy pitches and get-rich-quick schemes, other departments of the same company may be flirting with ways to deliver their own targeted e-mail pitches. This has left IT personnel in the awkward position of scrambling to learn how to both block and deliver mass online mailings.

In other words, one person's spam is another's e-mail marketing triumph, and after a period of polarized views on bulk e-mail, a middle ground is forming.

Managers of electronic messaging systems now can choose from dozens of products -- from free to very costly -- that purport to outwit each other in the sending and squashing of spam. Economics has become the arbiter of the technology. For a price e-mail can be sent just about anywhere, but run-of-the-mill, low-cost spam can be easily blocked.

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At the Northwest Regional Education District, in Hillsboro, Ore., for example, the spam that was sent to school children's e-mail boxes was "irritating and annoying" until seven months ago when some domain filters were added, said Greg Thomas, chief technology officer for the school district.

"We hardly get any [spam] anymore. We've kind of closed the door on [it]," Thomas said.

What most organizations are finding is that combating the most egregious spam is not very difficult or costly. The question becomes which spam is worth letting through. If someone is willing to go to a lot of trouble to send a message, it may actually contain some value.

"Sometimes there is stuff you want to hear about," said Steve Whitney, a business development manager at PriceWaterhouseCoopers, in Arlington Heights, Ill., who has both a work e-mail address and an at-home ISP account. "I wish I could filter out the other stuff, but I'd still prefer [no spam] to getting it all."

The New York Yankees baseball team, for example, uses UnityMail 2.0 from Revnet Systems, in Los Angeles, to target e-mail on commercial interests to fans. The $4,000 UnityMail product includes a database of e-mail addresses, from which the Yankees draw potentially interested recipients, as well as add the addresses of those who register at kiosks at Yankee Stadium and the team's Web site, said a Revnet representative.

"The future of junk e-mail is that you need a receptive audience," said Eric Arnum, editor of Electronic Mail & Messaging Systems, in Washington, who added that the rate of spam at several "spam catcher" sites, which monitor bulk e-mail traffic, has leveled off in the past seven months to average about nine unwanted messages per day.

That leveling off is the economics of spam at work, according to Arnum.

"The death of junk e-mail will come from a social reason," Arnum said. "One of two things will happen: No one will check their e-mail boxes, or junkers will know no one is reading their e-mail. Either way, the message is not being delivered."

The leveling off of bulk e-mail in favor of targeted ones for economic and social reasons makes sense if you consider that a personal mass e-mail delivery software package costs $49 and a server to combat unsolicited e-mail can cost $25,000. If spam worked really well for any but a few unsavory uses, the Internet would be flooded in spam by now, Arnum said.

The fine line between "good" and "bad" spam is particularly sharp for ISPs, which want to both protect their customers and further leverage distribution media.

Several spam-filtering vendors -- including Bright Light Technologies, Berkeley Software Design, Trend Micro, 3k Associates, and Seattle Lab -- are targeting their products at ISPs.

Into all this the government has gingerly entered. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has taken a buyer-beware educational stance on unsolicited e-mail. The Ad-Hoc Working Group on Unsolicited Commercial E-mail in a July 14 report to the FTC proposed stricter regulations and the need for spammers to bear the costs of clogging the Internet.

"Spam is a problem for practically everyone with a computer. It's annoying, it slows down the e-mail system and a lot of it is fraudulent," said Jodie Bernstein, the bureau director at the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection, in Washington.

Although some observers say the FTC cannot legislate a ban, Washington state has moved into the legal realm and empowered individuals and companies to seek damages and penalties from deceitful spammers. In July, Bruce Miller in Seattle received a settlement from a spammer under the state's "truth in sending" law. He received a money order for $200 from a spammer advertising a health drink.

And last week, as a result of a statute outlawing commercial e-mail that contains false routing information, Los Angeles-based WorldTouch Network was named in one of the first "anti-spam" lawsuits.

WorldTouch sells Bull's Eye Gold, a program that collects e-mail addresses and helps deliver bulk and targeted e-mail. Companies such as WorldTouch have attracted the scorn of many anti-spam zealots to the point where not many branded retail products would want to be associated with a spam campaign.

"There are many wonderful commercial uses of the Internet, but depositing unwanted e-mail on the computers of unwilling recipients is not one of them," said Rob Weinberg, an active member of the Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial E-mail (CAUCE) at "What corporations can do is foster a culture with little tolerance for spammers, whether the spammers wear sneakers and work in a garage or wear suits and call themselves Internet marketers."

Nonetheless, Internet-commerce sites, retail catalog sites, publishers and various business-to-business ventures are seeing finely targeted and nonoffensive e-mail as a strong marketing and delivery vehicle.

"This is not just a mass e-mailing. People get mass e-mails and delete them right away. We're sending different e-mails to different people," said Tanya Johnson, a representative at Revnet.

For Arnum, one of the best ways to use e-mail inoffensively and with sufficient value is to simply send a URL that links to a Web page that brings them actionable information they can use. It's also important to send a clear subject line that tells why this is worthy because users are becoming proficient at deleting unwanted messages. Senders should also state their policy on how the information will be used.

"People have learned the tricks," Arnum said.

Cutting out spam

U.S. government recommendations

  • Eliminate e-mail fraud
  • Equip users with tools and policies to control spam
  • Establish technical standards that control incoming spam
  • Ask private sector to pass cost of spam back to spammers
  • Encourage self-regulation

Top 'dirty dozen' spam scams

  • Business opportunities
  • Making money by sending bulk e-mail messages
  • Chain letters
  • Work-at-home schemes
  • Health and diet scams
  • Easy money
  • Freebies
  • Investment opportunities
  • Cable descrambler kits
  • Guaranteed loans or credit, with easy terms
  • Credit repair
  • Vacation prize promotions

Source: U.S. Federal Trade Commission

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