Spam Rage

Charles Booher was fed up with spam. The Silicon Valley computer programmer said he was tired of wading through hundreds of junk emails and pop-up ads on his computer from Albion Medical, a Canadian company that offers “the only reliable, medically approved p—- enhancement.” The 44-year-old tried to contact the company to tell them not to send the ads, but nothing worked.

So Booher did what any other unreasonable man might do. He threatened to send a “package full of Anthrax spores” to the company, “disable” an employee with a bullet and torture him with a power drill and ice pick, not to mention hunting down and castrating all the other employees unless they removed him from their email list.

Booher, who was arrested last month and could face up to five years in prison, is an extreme case of what the Internet savvy are now calling “spam rage.” Spam rage is becoming increasingly common in a culture already dealing with “road rage,” “air rage” and well … you name it.

In other cases, spam ragers have bombarded spammers with emails and snail mail and phone calls, launched attacks on spammers’ computers and posted spammers’ personal information on the Internet.

For the rest of us, we have to wonder—has spam really gotten that bad? David Griffith thinks so. Griffith, a college student and frequent Internet user, said he’s done everything—used spam filters, installed anti-spam software and even replied to spammers requesting his name be taken off their mailing lists—but nothing has worked.

“I’m not sure what else I can do,” Griffith groaned. “It’s getting to the point where email is becoming more trouble than it’s worth.”

He isn’t alone in his sentiments. As the Internet becomes more of a fixture in homes and businesses all over the world, the amount of unwanted email messages has skyrocketed. These messages, known popularly as spam, fill email inboxes mostly with generic solicitations from marketers hawking vitamin supplements, Viagra, nude teenagers or a brand new guaranteed weight loss program. More subtle, and potentially more dangerous are email hoaxes—mysterious emails from dying millionaires wanting to give away money or property, restaurants allegedly giving free gift certificates for forwarding email or scammers posing as Internet service providers or credit card companies.

America Online, one of the nation’s largest Internet providers, reported that spam filters and other measures blocked 1.5 billion emails a day, up from 780 million a day in March. The company also reported that spam made up for 52 percent of all Internet traffic, and they expect that number to grow. At one time, these emails were a bothersome annoyance, but in recent months, spam is reaching critical mass, making email a chore.

The growing avalanche of spam is getting to be such a problem that now the law is getting involved. Federal legislation allowing for the criminal prosecution of spammers has been passed by Congress and is awaiting President Bush’s signature. Many states have passed some kind of anti-spam laws, including California, which has a tough anti-spam law that will come into affect Jan. 1.

Recently in Virginia, two men were arrested and face felony charges for their spam operation, reportedly the first time spamming has brought felony charges. The state of Missouri recently created an anti-spam law that went into effect Aug. 28. The law makes it illegal for someone to send you an email after you’ve told them you don’t want any. Violators can be fined up to $5,000 per violation or up to $25,000 a day.

Beth Hammock, director of communications at the Missouri Attorney General’s Office, said thousands of these complaints have been filed, but only two have been tracked down and prosecuted. Hammock called the law “difficult to enforce.” “We find it difficult to track down spammers right now. Lots of them are overseas, or they use methods to keep their identity secret,” she said.

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Hammock said anti-spam laws are still weak because they are “opt-out” instead of “opt-in.” “Ideally we’d want a “no-spam list” where you could put your name on a list and then it would be illegal to get unsolicited emails,” she said. Hammock also said Attorney General Jay Nixon wanted to have anti-spam list, similar to Missouri’s “no-call list,” but state lawmakers didn’t pass it.

So with mostly ineffective laws, is there a way totally stop spam without making anthrax threats? Well, not quite, but experts give several pieces of advice to minimize it. Many say the best way to fight spam is to do it yourself. This usually means filtering the junk of your personal email. Internet service providers often offer filtering services for their customers, such as Spam Assassin and Spamcop. Microsoft’s free Hotmail, which usually seems to attract more than its share of spam, now offers several different spam filters designed to slow it down.

Most spam stopping software is free and easy to download on the Internet. The easiest way to find it is usually just to do a Google search. Others suggest keeping multiple email addresses and giving out one to your friends and family and one to online companies and websites when you register for products or sign up for an account.

Another way to protect yourself is to hide your email address. In March, the Center for Democracy and Technology released a study that said spammers get many of their addresses by using bots to harvest addresses from the web or Usenet, so think twice before posting your email address on a public forum or website.

[Ryan Smith is a reporter and freelance writer who lives in Columbia, Mo. He plans to email this article to 270 million of his closest friends.]

[Stories on RELEVANTmagazine.com are user-submitted. The viewpoints expressed are the opinions of the author and do not necessary reflect the opinion of RELEVANT magazine. For exclusive in-depth stories, subscribe now to RELEVANT magazine. If you are interested in submitting an article, please check out our writers guidelines.]

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