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What Should We Do About Spam?

Aug 26, 2007
I receive over 50 emails per day. Usually, close to 45 of them are spam. For the uninitiated, unsolicited marketing emails are considered spam. The amount of junk email being sent has spiraled out of control. Some people receive over 100 unsolicited messages per day! For the purposes of this article, we are going to examine the different methods employed by marketers to steal your email address, and whether or not anything can be done to put an end to spam once and for all.

Most of the marketing messages I receive in my inbox are sexually explicit, but I still like to look at them because some of this junk is actually quite entertaining. My personal favorites are offers to purchase discounted Canadian Viagra, ads for pornographic websites, bogus work-from-home programs, or quotes for 50 year mortgages.

How do these idiots get your email address in the first place? One way they can get it is through opt-in email. When you order something online, as part of the subscription or service that you signed up for, you may have inadvertently or unknowingly agreed to receive offers via email from that company in the future. As a result, said company begins to send you offers via email. This is perfectly legal as long as the company provides you with a way to unsubscribe from their mailing list. If they do not provide you with a means to unsubscribe, then the emails they are sending you are considered spam.

To make matters worse, spammers will often sell your email address and any other information you submitted to them to hundreds of other companies who are looking for leads or mailing lists. Before you know it, your email address has been circulated far and wide to almost every online business imaginable. Once this happens, there is almost no way to protect your email address ever again.

Another common way senders of spam get their hands on your email address is by first purchasing a list of email addresses from someone else, and then sending a joke or an interesting cartoon to everyone on the list and ask that you forward it along to all your friends and relatives. Once you forward the message, the spammer actually has a program that can copy the list of addresses that the message has been forwarded to and send it back to him or her. So now, that person not only has your email address, but also has the email address of every one you forwarded the message to. Using this tactic, email marketers can grow their list of email addresses exponentially.

Another popular technique is known as harvesting. This is accomplished by writing a simple programming function that searches through every web site listed on a search engine for a certain keyword, and then quickly scanning each of those sites for any email addresses that are posted there, and subsequently sending them back to the spammer. An example of harvesting would be a program written to scan every website listed on Google for a certain keyword, such as real estate agents, and then recording every email address that is found on the web sites that come up in the search, and emailing the entire list of email addresses back to the harvester. Using this technology, it is possible to acquire thousands of email addresses in an hour or less.

Harvesting has become a legal dilemma, because the email marketing community feels that it should be allowed to harvest email addresses that are posted on public websites because, in their opinion, if someone has posted their email address for all to see, then other people have the right to contact that person and ask them questions or send them offers. However, web sites where email addresses are posted have threatened legal action against anyone that copies addresses and uses them to build mailing lists or send spam. Unfortunately, these web sites really have no way to prevent this email theft, and it will only get worse in the future.

Spam is here to stay, because it is nearly impossible to prevent. Both big businesses and small businesses have a strong incentive to send bulk email, because it costs nothing, and is a valuable tool for increasing their customer base. Sending regular mail or hiring telemarketers costs a lot of money and is ineffective. As a result, most companies would prefer to send massive amounts of email versus paying a telemarketer or spending money on postage to send offers through the mail. So, we should all expect to continue to receive enormous amounts of spam in our inbox for years to come.
About the Author
Jim Pretin is the owner of http://www.forms4free.com, a service that helps programmers make email forms.
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