Spams and Scams
Jeff Chapman reports on unethical advertising on the Internet.
THE INTERNET CAN BE a genealogist's best friend. Unfortunately, not everyone on the Internet is there to share information and conversation. Scam artists and spam artists are the vultures that soar around the genealogical community, hungrily eyeing its wallets, using the Internet to do their dirty work.
Unwanted, irrelevant mail on the Internet has long been known by the colloquial name spam, after a well-known Monty Python skit in which some rowdy Vikings drown out all real conversation with a continual annoying chant of "spam, spam, spam".
In Usenet terms, spam consists of unwanted messages sent to multiple newsgroups. These messages usually have little to nothing to do with the subject of the newsgroups to which they are posted; one might see, for example, an ad for a used car for sale posted to soc.genealogy.methods. Usenet spam robs users of the utility of the newsgroups by overwhelming them with a barrage of advertising or other irrelevant posts.
Recently, hundreds of loyal alt.genealogy readers were shocked to learn that their newsgroup had disappeared overnight. In fact, alt.genealogy was still up and running, but America Online had stopped providing the group to its members because of the group's questionable content. The real users of alt.genealogy soon realized the problem: they were being punished for the misbehavior of spammers. Like many groups in the alt hierarchy, alt.genealogy was continually blighted with dozens of unwanted and irrelevant posts inviting its members to come visit various "adult" sites on the web. The group has since been restored to America Online members, but the original problem persists.
While it's unlikely that the genealogical community can hope to stop the onslaught of ads for adult sites and get-rich-quick schemes, online genealogists probably do have the power to patrol over spammers who target the genealogy groups. If the online genealogical community stops buying products which have been advertised through spam, and lets the advertisers know exactly why they're being boycotted, the advertisers will eventually change their ways.
Trolling and Harvesting
While most real messages on Usenet are very informative, polite and helpful, occasionally a message will appear that is just so offensive and outrageous you can't help but reply and tell the poster off. Don't do it! If you read an off-topic, hateful and inflammatory message, crossposted to several different newsgroups, chances are good that the poster is doing more than trying to get attention. The message is a troll, and the poster is trolling for angry responses so he or she can collect the e-mail addresses of everyone who responds. Users who e-mail responses to troll messages can expect to be marked as newly-discovered active accounts and may shortly find their way onto a multitude of spam lists.
Have you wondered why so many Usenet denizens seem to have signed up with a service provider called Nospam.com lately? They haven't. Many people who post to Usenet regularly have begun to disguise their e-mail addresses when posting to newsgroups in an effort to elude harvesting. Harvesting is the primary technique spam artists use to compile their massive lists of potential victims. Using special software, spam artists patrol newsgroups and automatically collect the e-mail addresses of everyone who has posted in the last few months. Victims whose names are harvested will probably have to endure inboxes filled with unsolicited e-mail for quite some time.
The most widespread, direct and annoying form of unethical genealogical marketing comes in the form of unsolicited commercial e-mail (UCE), sometimes called unsolicited bulk e-mail (UBE) or simply spam. Spamming advertisers mass-mail commercial messages to thousands of e-mail addresses. As mentioned, their mailing lists are usually created by scanning Usenet postings, but victims' addresses may also be snatched from webpages or e-mail messages.
Unsolicited e-mail is a plague upon Internet users for several reasons. The primary problem is that bulk e-mail wastes everyone's time and bandwidth. As a further problem, many of the unsolicited e-mails advertise illegal - or non-existent - products or pyramid schemes. Others advertise adult materials, or invite the user to come visit an adult website, seemingly oblivious to the fact that their advertisements may well be read by children.
Spam is rampant primarily because it costs the sender very little to send - most of the costs are paid for by the recipient or the carriers rather than by the sender. Spamming is really "postage due marketing" - getting a box full of unsolicited e-mail is almost like an advertiser making collect calls to pitch his or her products. Since the cost is so low, the companies that employ spam don't normally bother targeting their advertising, and simply send every advertisement to every Internet address they've collected.
The low cost of spam is what moved the genealogy firm Kindred Konnections to send out around 5,000 pieces of unsoliticed e-mail to members of the genealogical community. After two years of website development, Kindred Konnections wished to inform genealogists of its research data. "We considered our options, and one of the low cost options was to communicate through e-mail," says Mike Andrews of Kindred Konnections. "We received back about 10 messages from persons that were upset, and about 1,000 who were pleased. We have now let the community know about the site ... and have no desire to make use of e-mail to let any additional persons know about our site."
One particularly nasty variant of e-mail spam is sending spam to mailing lists, which are public or semi-public e-mail discussion forums which operate through computer programs called mail servers. Because many mailing lists limit posting ability to their subscribers, unscrupulous advertisers must use automated tools to subscribe to as many mailing lists as possible, so that they can grab the lists of addresses, or use the mailing list as a direct target for their obviously unwelcome advertising. Such an advertising blitz affected Rootsweb's mailing lists in August 1997, after Cliff Shaw's genealogy message board service GenForum sent messages to Rootsweb mailing lists inviting the users to come take a look at GenForum. "GenForum did, in fact, spam our 1,500 surname mailing lists and force us to take our mail server offline while we cleaned up the wreckage," said Brian Leverich of Rootsweb.
The Rootsweb incident was not the first time genealogists have been hurt by unsolicited commercial e-mail. Maiser, once the largest collection of genealogy lists, was forced off the Net last spring after it was used as a fake return address to hide the identity of a junk e-mailer. For three years previously, the Maiser lists had assisted more than 40,000 subscribers with their surname-specific and location-specific genealogy discussions. All of the 1,000-plus Maiser lists came crashing to a halt, leaving many genealogists stranded, when a spammer hired by a Georgia-based print supply company bombarded the lists with unsolicited commercial e-mail. The spam was routed through Indiana University computers, which made it appear that the ads had come from the same computers that are home to the genealogy lists. Larry Stephens, the Indiana University official who organized the groups as a hobby, was forced to shut the servers down rather than let them appear to be the source of the spam. The Maiser lists have since relocated to Rootsweb.
False advertising through the Internet is an increasingly common problem. In early August this year, more than 3,900 online genealogists received a message along these lines:
The problem was not only that "Bob" was the most bland conversationalist of all time, but that he didn't actually know any of the people to whom this message was sent. The incredibly generic banter is constructed in such a way that it would apply to virtually any genealogist. This message, which advertised a GenQuest CD, infuriated many of the recipients once they realized it was a fraud. "I would just rather they actually tried to sell it, instead of making it seem like a friend was recommending it," posted Anne Bowden. "This e-mail is SPAM. Period. Worse, it comes across being chatty and friendly. This company is trying to hoodwink folks into believing that 'old friends' are recommending their products. That's enough for me to never want to deal with them," says Usenet regular Diane Boettcher. Ron Maloney of GenQuest has since issued private explanations to the effect that the message was issued by a malicious former employee of his website designer.
>It has been months since I|
>have heard from you.
>Did you end up going to NGS
>in Valley Forge, PA?
>You said to let you know if
>I found anything useful.
>Well, I did! I really like
>this site <URL deleted>.
>They have the coolest CD.
>I wish I needed it, but I
>haven't got my German lines
>back that far yet.
>Check it out and let me
>know what you think. Oh,
>before I forget. Did you
>join that genealogy society
>you mentioned? Is the
>newsletter you get
>Let's keep in touch,
Spammers know that more than 90 percent of recipients don't want to see their messages, and more than half, according to surveys, are positively angered by them. Accordingly, spammers use tricks that help disguise the origin of their messages; one of the most common is to relay their messages via someone else's mail server, putting the burden of sending the mail somewhere else, in addition to providing a convenient target for all the angry mail coming back. Another common trick spammers use is to forge the headers of messages, making it appear as though the message originated elsewhere, again providing a convenient target. False advertising, or "intelligent spam", seems to be the next evolution of unsolicited commercial e-mail.
The first amendment to the American Bill of Rights only protects citizens from government interference in their exercise of free speech. It does not allow people to come on your property and bellow at you. US Congress is currently considering banning spam in much the same way that junk faxes were outlawed, or at least forcing spammers to label their e-mail as advertising.
Until then, here's what not to do. Do not follow the spammers' instructions and reply with the word "remove", or visit a webpage to sign up for an "opt-out" list! Replying "remove" indicates that your e-mail account is active, and in most cases will be about as effective as swimming away frantically upon sighting a shark. While some e-mail marketers respect remove and opt-out requests, their lists often fall into the wrong hands. One of the largest "opt-out" services is the Internet E-mail Marketing Council (IEMMC), which is created, sponsored and controlled by a consortium of five of the largest distributors of unsolicited e-mail. According to online genealogist Tim Pierce, "IEMMC is a sham. Signing up with them is like the lambs racing to be slaughtered. Everyone I know who has signed up with IEMMC has received more spam in the following days, not less." Sadly, the vast majority of spammers simply do not care whether or not their audience wishes to hear what they have to say.
Steps can be taken to defend yourself against unwanted e-mail. If you post to Usenet, you might want to consider disguising your e-mail address. Adding the phrase "nospam" somewhere in your e-mail address will hide you from most harvesting software, and yet leave your real e-mail address recognizable to other users. If you get unsolicited e-mail, the best solution is to complain to the spammer's service provider. To do this, simply reply to the message and substitute the sender's name (the portion in front of the @) with "abuse" or "postmaster". Quote the message you received in full, headers and all, and leave a brief, polite message to the effect that you did not request the mail and would like action taken against the sender. If the service provider receives enough complaints, they may suspend or remove the sender's account.
Is the fight against spam a losing battle? On Usenet, automated crossposting has never been easier or more abundant, but new cancelbots and spam-blocking technologies such as NoCeM offer some hope. In e-mail, harvesting and remailing programs used by spammers are growing increasingly powerful, but a growing number of service providers are filtering out more and more spam. Services such as Spaminator and BlackMail filter out high percentages of all unsolicited e-mail. Until laws against unethical Internet marketing are passed, the battle over spam will be a largely technological conflict.
For more information on measures that can be taken against spam, visit the site of the Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial E-mail. For information on anti-spam software, visit the Junk Mail Filtration page.
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