Lawmakers and law enforcers at last have taken aim at mega-spammers who flood the Internet with a virtual tsunami of unsolicited, unwanted and all-too-often bogus offers of cheap software, pharmaceuticals and home mortgages.

Lawmakers and law enforcers at last have taken aim at mega-spammers who flood the Internet with a virtual tsunami of unsolicited, unwanted and all-too-often bogus offers of cheap software, pharmaceuticals and home mortgages. Taking aim is a good start, but so far, neither the laws nor the prosecutors have done nearly enough to protect the nation’s businesses and individuals from this modern-day scourge.

The use of the word “spam” to describe junk e-mail originated with an old Monty Python gag about a brand of potted meat. The fictitious Python restaurant that served nothing but spam, spam and spam with everything on the menu was a gag years ago, and computer spam is still a gag, although mostly in the other sense of the word, today.

People who rarely use the Internet or not at all might argue that junk e-mail doesn’t really matter and that there are more serious crimes for cops to solve and more heinous criminals for attorneys, judges and juries to prosecute, convict and sentence. But spam has its victims. We’re all plagued by it day after day, and indeed, the damage is worsening over time.

E-mail security service MessageLabs scanned more then 12 billion e-mail messages last year and found a whopping 73 percent of them were spam, a significant increase from the also horrifying 40 percent figure of the prior year. New laws and high-profile prosecutions of spammers clearly haven’t stopped any of the spam that flows through the Internet. More laws and more prosecutions are needed as are efforts to pressure other countries to take spam seriously as well.

Spam costs businesses and individuals time and money. The time is spent to filter spam, block spam, search through spam and delete spam. The money is spent to buy anti-spam software along with the requisite annual upgrades and subscriptions and to add more computing power to handle the inflow. Add to that the psychological torture inflicted on employees who have to sort through hundreds of junk messages every day, and the cost to society as a whole is far from negligible.

Spam also casts a negative image on legitimate e-mail marketing to receptive potential customers. It clogs up the Internet and bumps up Internet service providers’ costs, which then are passed along to Internet users. Spam helps crooks perpetrate illegal and harmful scams and frauds, and it diverts law enforcement resources from other crimes to the necessary investigation and prosecution of spammers.

Put one of your own e-mail addresses on a high-traffic Web site, and you’ll soon be buried under hundreds of junk messages every day. Yes, you can block it and yes, you can delete it, but why should you have to spend your time and money on such activities? And add to that the time-consuming hunt for legitimate messages that otherwise might be lost or discarded because they were caught in the spam filter or looked too suspicious to open.

The sad truth about spam is that too many people open it, read it and act on it. Spam works, just like telemarketing and junk U.S. mail. It’s a numbers game in which a mere 1 or 2 percent response rate is considered a win. Economies of scale make spam even more attractive to scammers than either telemarketing or junk U.S. mail. The cost of sending more spam is essentially the same as the cost of sending less spam. Spam can be sent without telephones, dialing machines or telemarketers. Nor does the spammer need envelopes, paper or postage stamps.

Here’s how you can help fight spam:

  • Ignore it. Don’t open it. Don’t reply to it. Don’t forward it, and definitely don’t buy anything promoted in it.
  • Forward suspicious spam to the appropriate law enforcement agencies.
  • Keep the pressure on lawmakers to get tough on mega-spammers.
  • If you send commercial e-mail solicitations, understand and comply with the federal CAN-SPAM law and include a legitimate opt-out mechanism for recipients.
  • Educate yourself about spam and other cyber scams like phishing and identity theft. The Federal Trade Commission offers a number of publications that contain useful information about these subjects.

Spam. It’s no longer just potted meat, but we’re all still gagging on it.

Marcie Geffner is a real estate reporter in Los Angeles.

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