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Baja California Information Pages

Dealing with Spam

spam vt.,vi.,n.

[from "Monty Python's Flying Circus"]
. . .
To mass-mail unrequested identical or nearly-identical email messages, particularly those containing advertising. Especially used when the mail addresses have been culled from network traffic or databases without the consent of the recipients.
. . .

The Jargon File
Version 4.3.1, June 29, 2001
spambot n.

A software program that browses websites looking for email addresses, which it then "harvests" and collects into large lists. These lists are then either used directly for marketing purposes, or else sold, often in the form of CD-ROMs packed with millions of addresses. To add insult to injury, you may then receive spam emails which ask you to buy one of these lists (or even the spambot itself).

Stopping Spambots: A Spambot Trap
Neil Gunton

Hormel, the makers of the luncheon meat Spam, have taken an enlightened view on the use of their trade-marked name. You can pay them a visit at the "official" SPAM website:

Historical Perspective  

I'll start with a bit of historical perspective, at least from the view I've developed over many years of living part of my e-life on the nets. Since my first email was probably sent in 1979 or 1980, my recollections are somewhat vague due to the fact that I didn't understand where those things were going to end up twenty years later. To say that email, and other net activities, have greatly changed would be a vast understatement.

From my introduction to net activity until the early 1990s, the net was what might be called a "kinder and gentler place." In the early 90s it began to show signs of change, with the potential for much more that was better, as well as some that was worse.

The first noticable change for the worse was a rapid increase in the net population. This brought in people who did not understand, or want to understand, the community of shared interests which had guided the development of the nets to that point.

The second major change was the introduction of commercial activities. Up to that point there had been no significant commercial development taking place over the nets (at that point consolidated into the "Internet"). That this had immense positive influences on the subsequent changes is now clear. However, there were also some significant negative developments, and one of these is the concern of this page.

The Problem  

We're all familiar with the concept of "junk mail." This form of mail is somewhat controlled since it costs a significant amount of postage to send large amounts of mail, even at bulk rates. With the advent of email, which is free of direct costs, a medium for delivering very large amounts of "junk mail" was suddenly available, at very little cost!

In the case of postal mail, in the U.S., there are fairly stong regulations on the use of the Postal Service, with some enforcement activities working to control the problem areas. In the case of email, there is very little regulation, and almost nothing in the way of enforcement activities on junk email ("spam").

For the most part, the Internet has a weak regulatory system in place. When junk mail is sent on the net, it can just as well be the selling of a fraud as of a legitimate product. The source of a fraud can be anywhere in the world, and enforcement can be impossible.

Now, where do these "spammers" get your email address? Unfortunately, one of the major sources can be a message board serving a community of users sharing a common interest (like Baja California). A spammer will start a spambot (see the definition above) which will keep following links on webpages and, on each page accessed, harvest all email addresses it finds. The content of the webpage is irrelevant, the spambot is only interested in the content of its harvest of addresses.

As an example of a fraudulent email, here are some excerpts from an email I received (May, 2002 - this is the Nigerian Scam - see the links at the bottom of the page):

  • First, I must solicit your confidence in this transaction, this is by virtue if its nature as being utterly CONFIDENTIAL and TOP SECRET. Though I know that a transaction of this magnitude will make any one apprehensive and worried, but I am assuring you that all will be well at the end of the day. We have decided to contact you due to the urgency of this transaction, as we have been reliably informed of your discreteness and ability in transactions of this nature.

  • If this proposal is OK by you and you do not wish to take undue advantage of the trust, we hope to bestow on you and your company, then kindly get to me immediately via my private Email: Furnishing me with your most confidential telephone, fax number and exclusive bank particulars so that I can use these information to apply for the release and subsequent transfer of the funds in your favour.

The matter of this spam involved some millions of dollars which could be mine if only I supplied "exclusive bank particulars." Now, this was clear fraud to me; however, for many novice users of the Internet that might not be the case. I have an aunt who recently celebrated her 90th birthday - and the most exciting gift she received was a new golf bag! Yes, this woman still plays golf at 90 . . . and, she uses email. While her mind continues to be quite sharp, I'm not sure how she'd react to such a fradulent message.

Ignoring the matter of fraud, the sheer number of spam emails one can receive is reason enough to attempt cutting the number down, like way down. My email address appears on almost one thousand individual web pages I've written, and my email box reflects that fact.

A caution:   Spam will often contain a notice detailing how to be removed from the mailing list. As a general rule, it's considered unwise to follow this procedure - most of the time it's used by the spammer to verify that an email address is active. The address will then be tagged as having been verified, and simply be moved to a higher quality list (higher quality from the point of view of the spammer!).

The Solution  

A "solution" to the spam problem will be addressed relative to the Baja California Travelers Message Board.

If you post a message, providing your email address is optional. This offers your strongest defense against spammers - if there's nothing there, the spambot will just roll on with its harvesting. However, if your posting is questionable relative to the Posting Policy, the lack of an email address may lead to the posting being removed without your being consulted.

Sometimes there will be a reason you want to provide your email address. In such cases, you may want to disguise the address a bit. For example, whenever I post you'll find my email address given as:

ftm_REMOVE @

This does not provide a working email address, however, my assumption is that a human sending me email will realize that the REMOVE parts must be taken out, and any blanks removed. Smart spambots will also be able to do that, but a dumb spambot will either ignore this as an email address (the spaces), or tag it as an address which is, unbeknownst to the "bot," invalid (has the REMOVE's in it).

The remaining part of the solution lies with the programming of the message board. I try to take the given email address and provide a bit of disguise which won't show up in the address if the poster's name is clicked on. This is a small step, and probably only works for the dumber spambots.

Another step which I hope to be making soon is to put in a small trap for spambots. My expectation is that this will not interfere in any way with the functioning of the board. If problems do surface, please email me (see above for the address!).

Fred Metcalf

Some Links  

Thanks to Bob Hilderbrand ("Bob H") for the following links!

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Contents Page: Copyright 2002 Fred T. Metcalf