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Spam, spam, spam, spam ...

We all get tons of it, daily. Spam. Not just part of our 5 a day, it IS our 5 a day and then some.

It sends shivers down the spine as it causes work getting rid of it. It is a nuisance that people apparently just have to put up with online, despite attempts to outlaw it in various places. However, it is growing exponentially, so putting up with it is not a sustainable course of action in the long run.

What’s It Mean?

Spam, the luncheon meat, was first sold in 1937. It was, and still is, ‘spiced’ and ‘ham’: precooked chopped pork shoulder with ham, salt, water, modified potato starch and sodium nitrate, with a gelatinous glaze formed when the meat cools.

Like Marmite, people usually either love it or hate it. In 2007 in the USA they sold the seventh billion can; almost four cans a second are eaten in the US alone.

It is often remembered in Britain as the subject of a three and a half minute sketch in the Monty Python 1970s TV show, in which it is everywhere and inescapable on the menu in a cafe. This inspired the contemporary word to describe the major problem. Incidentally it also inspired the stage musical Spamalot and a game, too!

Electronic Spam

Spam is sending unsolicited bulk messages in a scattergun approach. Email is the favoured method of spammers, they simply buy data lists and/or build their own, and fire them out. Last year some estimates have it that 7 trillion spam messages were sent, costing ISPs lost productivity, burdening the system and annoying recipients.

There are few barriers to entry into the spamming business. Cheap, cheerfully untraceable and quick to set up. Sending out flyers for extra business is an increasing form of advertising, and is perfectly legitimate nowadays, but blind blitzing is another. Spam hits instant messaging, mobile phones, faxes (where they are still in use), search engines, blogs, wikis and social networking.

A ‘Ludicrous’ Example

I got this email the other day, with the heading: ‘A business proposition for David Porter’. I have from time to time received new work through email from people I do not know who have found something I have written or my webpage. To open it and have a look is natural. So I did.

From: “Abigail Hunt”
My name is Abigail Hunt and I was wondering if you are interested in exchange links, I’ll place your link on my sites exactly here:

azsleepdoctors(dot)com PR3
healingkentucky(dot)com PR2. 

If you agree please send me your site details: 

Title:
 Url:

 I’ll place your link in less than 24 hours, then I’ll send you an email with my info. 

Regards. 

If you don’t want to receive more mails just reply with “unsubscribe”.

Rather than just wearily unsubscribe, I Googled ‘azsleepdoctors’ and found that others had received the same email too.

One, a blogger at developerWorks, a professional network for the developer community, headed it: ‘Ludicrous email of the day and other things from my inbox….’ He said he knew it was automated, as these things are, but ‘the idea is just silly, it makes me laugh’. He has no interest or connection with the herbal remedy industry.

Further delving shows that the organisation behind ‘Abigail Hunt’ and the Spam Machine has registered dozens of similar domain names and can just keep on flooding inboxes in the hope that some are taken in and linked to.

The point is that automatic spam makes little or no allowance for what a site or email address actually is interested in.

Can Anything Be Done?

Lots of companies market various ways of stopping/blocking/filtering/assassinating spam. One site, SpamAbuse.net publishes information and advice that may be helpful in at least reducing the tide. They suggest you never respond to it. They urge people to keep up political pressure through MPs and MEPs to bring in meaningful legislation to regulate it.

Many spammers get smarter in the sense that they disguise their material to look as if it’s hosted by a reputable company or organisation you know. Some Non Delivery Report, bounce message spam has a similar effect to a Distributed Denial of Service on the email service. So, they are moving away from harmless pestering that you can simply bin, to potentially disruptive and menacing intrusion that you can’t.

A technical paper on how the abuses work and what can be done is available as download from SpamAbuse. It makes good reading when people need to be careful what they open and what they keep from online recipients.

The recent uproar about Government plans to, in the words of Naked Security’s Graham Cluley (2 April 12): ‘compel ISPs to install hardware from GCHQ – the Government’s electronic snooping agency – which would allowing investigators to tap into a real-time feed of data, and examine when communications were sent, and who to, in order to build up intelligence on criminal activity’, does not address the problem of spamming.

Last year BBC News reported that the National Fraud Office were urging people who had received scam letters and emails to forward them on ‘just the once’ to them. The NFO launched an operation to track down fraudsters behind the industry in scam mail and needed public input. The site to report abuse is: http://www.actionfraud.police.uk/

It may lead to the ability to intercept spam/scam emails. Let’s hope so.

Sources:

Waldensponderings, May 2012.

Monty Python Spam Sketch, 1970.

Fight Spam on the Internet.

BBC News, 26 February 2011.

Image: Bing Ramos