WATPA: FW: NY Times - 'You've Got Mail,' More and More, and Mostly, It Is Junk

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From: Norm Jacknis (norm@jacknis.com)
Date: Mon Dec 24 2001 - 18:03:55 EST

We've all had this problem and now it's officially news -- on the front page
of today's New York Times.


-----Original Message-----
'You've Got Mail,' More and More, and Mostly, It Is Junk

December 24, 2001


Would you like to lose weight fast? Would you like to make
$5,000 a month from your home? How about trying some herbal
Viagra, good for men and women?

Yes or no, you are more likely to find such unsolicited
offers flooding your e-mail in-box these days than ever
before, along with a free trial for professional teeth
whitening, a low-rate mortgage and pornography of every
flavor. Usually they come from unfamiliar addresses like
"Debt Collectors" or Naughty Girl @hotmail.com, and often
they single you out by name in the subject line, as in
"Amy, Worried About Your Health?"

Such e-mail, best known by its pejorative appellation,
spam, has been annoying Internet users for years. But in
the last three months, spam has spiked.

One company that specializes in blocking spam, BrightMail,
said unsolicited e-mail accounted for 12.8 percent of the
mail its corporate clients have received since September,
nearly double the share of the previous quarter. A
spokesman for America Online, the nation's largest Internet
service provider, said unwanted e-mail was the No. 1
complaint of its subscribers.

No formal count of spam exists for the Internet, but
frustrated e-mail users are starting to tabulate their own

"I used to average maybe 10 a day," Shauna Wright, 34, of
San Francisco, complained to an Internet discussion group
recently. "Now I'm getting upwards of 9 or 10 times that

E-mail economics - it costs the sender virtually the same
to send 10 messages or 10 million - have proven
inspirational to peddlers of pyramid schemes and wonder
drugs. Even some mainstream marketers have been known to
lose restraint when it comes to e-mail advertising.

But for the recipients, it is not free. Deleting spam takes
time. Important mail is sometimes lost in efforts to filter
it. And just scanning through spam subject lines, which are
often sexually explicit and may seem to mysteriously single
out the recipient's own flaws and insecurities, can add a
level of irritation to routine e- mail correspondence.

Critics say the deluge of junk e- mail threatens to
undermine the utility of the Internet at precisely the time
when anthrax fears and cost- cutting efforts have prompted
more businesses to use it as a substitute for postal mail.

Marketers worry that people who feel constantly assaulted
by junk e- mail are less likely to trust any commercial
communication by e-mail, even from businesses they might
otherwise be happy to hear from, like a retailer alerting
them to a sale on an item they are interested in. To shield
themselves from junk e-mail, many Internet users have
become increasingly wary of divulging their addresses.

"The real downside is it makes people afraid to participate
in electronic life," said Brad Templeton, chairman of the
Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil liberties
organization. "They don't want to post to a mailing list or
go in a chat room for fear they'll be inundated with junk
mail and won't have any privacy."

Some mainstream marketers are already beginning to see the
effects of resistance to junk e-mail. Only a year ago,
advertisers were raving about the response rates to
targeted e-mail, which could reach as high as 20 percent.
But that number is falling fast.

"The increase in spam has decreased the overall
effectiveness of e-mail marketing," said Donna Hoffman, a
professor of marketing and e- commerce at Vanderbilt
University. "That trend is clear. Consumers are deleting it
before they read it."

"Is it harder to get heard above the noise? It certainly
doesn't make it easier," said William Park, chief executive
of Digital Impact, which develops promotional e-mail
campaigns for clients including Gap Inc., Fidelity and
Hewlett-Packard that are directed only at consumers who
have signed up to receive it.

Still, critics say some online retailers with well-known
brand names also contribute to the problem by automatically
adding customers to an e-mail list unless they specifically
ask to be kept off.

United Airlines, Amazon.com and Martha Stewart.com, among
others, all require customers to uncheck the "yes" box on
their Web site that asks if they would like to receive
e-mail from them - or, in some cases, an unspecified list
of advertising "partners." Sometimes, it is not entirely
clear that there is a choice involved.

The difficulty of defining spam is one reason efforts to
pass federal legislation to stop it have foundered. Critics
have compared junk e-mail to unsolicited faxes, which are
illegal under a law that was passed when receiving a fax
was quite expensive.

That law has never been challenged on constitutional
grounds. And it is not clear whether there would be support
for such a law for e- mail, which has become an important
medium for speech of all kinds.

Is unsolicited e-mail with a political message spam? What
about a request from a charity? Does an individual's right
to protect the privacy of an in-box trump the free speech
rights of marketers?

"If you're saying `unsolicited' is the problem, I would ask
you to think about my favorite example: Here's a one-dollar
coupon on Tide sent to everyone in America," said Bob
Weintzen, president of the Direct Marketing Association. "I
don't think too many people would be upset about that."

Still, protecting the free speech of junk e-mailers comes
at a cost, both to privacy and to the bottom line, that
appears to be mounting. Earlier this year, the European
Union released a study that estimated the worldwide cost of
junk e-mail at $8 billion annually. Corporations whose
employees use e-mail regularly are having to spend more
money on filters to handle the large volumes of traffic.
And if every employee spends even a few minutes a day
deleting unsolicited e-mail, the labor cost begins to add

Spam-watchers attribute the escalation to a combination of

Earlier this fall, the Direct Marketing Association told
its 5,000 members to consider using e-mail messages to
alert customers worried about anthrax that real mail was on
its way. Many of them have.

In addition, in a slumping economy, companies going out of
business may be selling their lists of customer e-mail
addresses to pay off creditors.

Mailing tactics have also improved. Online marketers have
always culled addresses from Web sites, but with the growth
of sites like eBay, the online auction service where
thousands of people post their e-mail addresses, automated
sweeps of the World Wide Web for e-mail addresses are
netting more results.

Many now use "dictionary attacks," in which a computer
automatically matches combinations of thousands of common
words and names with long lists of large domain names
(amyfritz@yahoo.com, amyfritz@hotmail.com, amyhar
monfritz@excite.com and so on) and sends e-mail messages to
all of them, much like telemarketers dialing numbers in
sequence. As a result, even people who have made concerted
efforts to keep their e-mail addresses private are finding
their mailboxes stuffed with suggestions on how to make
money fast or reduce their debts simply and easily.

"Everybody is saying they're getting more spam," said Les
Seagraves, the chief privacy officer for Earthlink, a major
Internet service provider that recently published a list of
tips for customers on how to avoid unwanted e-mail. "Once
we plug one hole, many more seem to open."

Like most providers, Earthlink tries to catch junk e-mail
before it reaches the in-boxes of its customers, and it
prohibits customers from sending spam. But that does not
prevent junk e-mailers from signing up for free trial
accounts and sending spam until they are kicked off, or
forging return addresses to avoid detection.

BrightMail, a San Francisco company that sets up thousands
of "bait" e-mail accounts to catch spam before it reaches
its clients, is fielding an average of 25,000 unique spam
messages a day, compared to 15,000 in the previous quarter
- the largest increase it has ever recorded. Two years ago,
the company found about 5,000 messages each day.

Some seasonal e-mail may subside after the holidays. And
certain marketing efforts related to the Sept. 11 attacks,
like those pitching nonprescription Cipro, are likely to
fade over time.

But the overall level of junk e-mail is expected to
increase. Internet users have received an average of 1,466
unsolicited messages this year, according to Jupiter Media
Metrix, a research firm, a number expected to grow to 3,800
over the next five years. That is bad news for people who
regularly shop online or post messages to discussion forums
and already receive that many each month.

Indeed, e-mail spam may finally be living up to its
etymology. The term comes from the Monty Python skit about
a couple in a restaurant trying to order food while a
chorus of Vikings sings "spam spam spam spam, lovely spam,
wonderful spam," drowning out all other conversation.

Christian Jensen of Austin, Tex., finally decided to fight
back. He wrote a program that blocks all e- mail to himself
and the seven employees of the Web services company he
founded, unless the sender's address has been added to a
list of acceptable names. Instead, they receive an
automated response:

"To confirm that you are a real human and not a spammer,
simply hit `reply' to this message," the e- mail says.
"Once this message is received on our side, the original
message you sent will then be delivered."

For the less technically adept, a cottage industry of
screeners has sprung up, including such firms as Spam
Motel, Spam Cop and Spammenot.org. Some e-mail programs,
like Yahoo's, offer built-in spam filtering for e-mail
accounts, and others, like Microsoft's Outlook Express and
Eudora, permit users to set up their own.

Marc Fest, 35, of Miami Beach, took a more drastic
approach. Last month, he gave up his prize e-mail address,
one he has used since 1996: marc@fest.net. People who send
him mail there are directed to a Web site where they can
send him e-mail, but they will not learn his new address
unless he chooses to reply. Mr. Fest's daily e-mail tally
has shrunk to 20 messages from 200. For now.


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Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company

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