Over the past couple of years, as the Internet has grown, so has one very annoying fad - junk email. Picture the scene, you switch on your computer, enter your password to log onto the Internet and you find yourself with a dozen or more messages just waiting to be read. They range from "hey, I thought you might be interested" and "important information," to the more sensationalist "free XXX pictures only for you."
So you delete one or two, or all of them, no doubt deleting an important message in the process thinking it was junk email. But let's face it, no matter how hard you try to get yourself off the junk email lists, the messages seem to keep coming.
As an experiment, I decided to collect the junk email sent to my AOL UK account to see what I was actually getting. Over the course of just three days, the number of messages passed the 50 mark. What amazes me most about junk email is that the junkers send out mail by the tens of thousands without knowing who they are targeting. If a company is trying to persuade people to part with #50 for some wonder gadget and only attracts one per cent of, say, 10,000 email recipients, that's a massive 100 people forking out #50 each - #5,000 in total for the cost of only a small amount of phone time. If a firm were to send out a mass mailing by post, then sending a mailshot to 10,000 people could cost upwards of #3,000. Junk email is both less time consuming and cheaper.
IT JUST GETS MY GOAT
What annoys me most about junk email is that in 99 per cent of all cases, it's badly addressed. I don't smoke, yet I've received a message offering ways to give up smoking. I've been offered the chance to part with a couple of hundred dollars to buy a book giving me all the information I'll ever need to become an estate agent in the US. But I live in the UK. Go figure.
Love junk mail or hate it, the one thing which UK mailers tend to get correct in most cases (at least for me) is information on products and services that are relevant to my needs and interests, unlike their online rivals.
Here's a list of some of the most suspect email messages I've received this year:
-Medical Marijuana Butter - I don't have a clue why the company offered me this for $35, but the message said I should allow six to eight weeks for delivery.
-I don't own any pets, but the junker behind E-Z Read Pet Tags still thought it would be a good idea to offer me them at $4.89.
-Global Stock Exchange wanted me to invest some money in companies I've never heard of. The company apologised in the event the message offended me. But once again, no mention how the junker got my address. The company claims you can be removed from its mailing list by sending a request via email. But going by past experience, a request to be taken off a list normally results in being added to another dozen.
-By downloading a software called MegaNets, the junk emailer claimed I would make so much money I'd be laughing all the way to the bank. The message didn't mention what the software is or what I have to do. The only person laughing all the way to the bank certainly won't be the recipient.
-Snooping the Internet comes in at a bargain basement $40 and claims to offer information on how people can investigate you online, or how you can find wanted fugitives. Quite why I should be interested in such a thing is unclear, but if I really wanted to find out about someone or something all I have to do is use a good search engine like Yahoo! or AltaVista and get plenty of links without having to fork out money.
-Look What I Found, Tommy. Well my name is not Tommy, but this sender thinks that because the message says click on this, I will. I don't take advice from strangers on the street, so why should I follow the instructions of strangers in cyberspace. And another thing, my name is not Tommy.
-Telephone Dating in Florida. I'm in the UK with a long-standing girlfriend, yet I got an email offering a free telephone dating service for people in Florida.
-I'm being offered a new Mercedes for #67 a week in the UK. And you thought it was just US companies junking the Net, well it's now crossing the pond.
-By buying a Laundry CD (whatever that is), I can make tens of thousands of dollars. Apparently, it's environmentally friendly. But best of all, according to the sender, the more people I introduce to this new "revolutionary" product, the more money I can make.
-For only $169, I was offered the software deal of the decade. A copy of Microsoft Office Professional 97. The sender even said it was unopened and unregistered. No doubt Bill Gates and folks will be investigating this too good to be true offer. The recipient is invited to call a number, leaving their name and number on an answer phone for a call-back.
In principle, I don't have anything against the free enterprise spirit of junk email, as long as it's properly targeted and reaches those people who are interested in the products and services on offer.
Some of the more organised junk emailers such as CyberPromo offer an opt-in and opt-out system. Having tried it out with a number of different email accounts I found them true to their word. Once I requested "stop sending", nothing more would arrive.
Another major problem with junk email is that often the person sending it will use a false return address. Quite often when I check the header of an email message I find several possible locations from where it could have originated. I received one recently of US origin which tried to give the appearance that it was from the former Soviet Union.
As the Internet market matures and companies realise the potential of organised emailshots, we'll hopefully see more professionals coming in, complying with laws to limit non-request email. Those who send fraudulent or unsolicited email could find themselves in breach of the law if restrictions like those of the Data Protection Act are implemented in the UK. Junkers often collect email addresses from newsgroups and forums of such online services as AOL and CompuServe.
GET WITH THE PROGRAMME
It's really now down to organisations both in the US and the UK to develop programmes that cut down on the amount of junk email going out to people who aren't interested in it and certainly don't want it.
Many of the large Internet service providers are compiling hit lists of known junk email accounts so as to prevent their members from receiving any unsolicited messages. But some of the more cunning and fraudulent junkers will forge an address, which makes the task even more difficult.
What's needed now are some stiff penalties to stop the offenders. It's only a matter of time before penalties are implemented as it's far better to nip the problem now, while it's still small, rather than later, when it may be harder to control.
If we don't do it now, the offers for cheap thrill phone calls and cut-price cat food will haunt Internet users for years to come.
Ben Simons ([email protected]) is a contributor to Internet World.
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