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Sunday, June 29, 2008

What Is Spam?

Almost anyone with a passing acquaintance with the Internet is familiar with spam. Just as junk mail is the demon of the Postal Service, spam is the scourge of e-mail.

Spam is unsolicited e-mail - often with some alleged commercial purpose, but almost always unwelcome. It's sent in bulk by automated programs to millions of e-mail addresses, usually offering products and services such as prescription medicines, get-rich-quick schemes and pornography.

As much as the objectionable content, it's the method of sending spam that upsets most people. Unlike junk (snail) mail that's delivered by the Postal Service at the expense of the sender, the cost of sending spam lies almost entirely on the receiver and the transmitters. There is a cost to the sender, when they use paid services to distribute, but the charge is often minimal.

So, why is spam so hated? After all, it can be eliminated with a simple delete. While receiving one or two unwanted e-mails a day is a minor inconvenience, when the number rises to 10, 20, or a hundred per day it becomes a major problem.

Before e-mail became an accepted means of communication, spam was mostly limited to USENET - newsgroups established to discuss specific topics. As it advanced, mechanisms for cross-posting - sending one message across multiple groups - came widely into use.

The ability to cross-post was, regrettably, quickly exploited by spammers. The same message could be sent to thousands of newsgroups with no regard for their actual interests.

With the rise in popularity of e-mail, spammers gained a whole new arena in which to inflict harm. They use software (spambots) to collect e-mail addresses posted on web sites or newsgroups, and send out their unwanted messages to millions of recipients at once.

Spambots are programs used to harvest e-mails for subsequent compiling into lists in order to - you guessed it - spam large groups of individuals in one easy and ill-bred way.

The sheer number of messages sent makes spam profitable. This is known as 'shotgun' advertising - when it's advertising at all and not a scam. Most reputable advertisers use 'targeted' marketing, which involves soliciting e-mail addresses voluntarily - or at least attempting to analyze the recipient - to send only messages that are likely to be welcomed.

Most people won't fall for get-rich-quick schemes or be interested in random merchandise solicitations, but if even one recipient out of a million provides his or her credit card number, the spammer's efforts can be amply repaid.

But don't despair. Spam is being fought on several fronts simultaneously. Companies and trade groups, legislation and technology are combining forces to make spam a thing of the past.

The effort may never be 100% effective since one man's spam is sometimes another's welcomed offer for a hotly sought item. But large strides are being made in all three areas.