At just over one per cent, the successful conversion rate for junk mail - in other words, the number of positive responses generated from a single mailing - must be similar to that for door-to-door Jehovah's Witnesses. Nevertheless, even at this apparently risible level, the mass-mailers are able to turn a profit. The conversion rate for junk email, on the other hand, is an amazing four per cent. And that's without overheads such as printing, and paying people to stick letters in envelopes and lick the stamps.
Little wonder, then, that in recent months, email services have started to exhibit performance levels akin to a tortoise in treacle. Hundreds of thousands of unsolicited promotions have played havoc with certain servers. CompuServe reported that because of email "spamming" by just one company, Cyber Promotions, many of its members' messages were taking up to three days to arrive as opposed to the more usual three seconds.
Things, it seems, are going pear-shaped. Clearly, no businessman who's been sold on the idea of the Internet as an instant communications medium is going to be over-enthusiastic when he finds it's faster to send his mail by pony and trap. Action clearly has to be taken. But what?
The service providers are, belatedly, starting to hit back. CompuServe has taken out a restraining order against Cyber Promotions in the US courts.
And only the other week, AOL inaugurated a junk email Search and Destroy service - by default, the 20 most offensive spammers are automatically zapped from members' mailboxes. As and when new ones appear, users can enter their email addresses. Thereafter, those miscreants will be consigned to cyber-oblivion. (Alternatively, if you're one of these terminally lonely types who enjoys receiving unsolicited email, you can click on a box and wallow in the stuff to your heart's content.)
But this sort of exercise is largely cosmetic, like applying flesh-coloured zit cream. The things are still there even if you can't see them. They're not fouling your personal mailbox but they are clogging networks.
Another problem is that junk emailers are rather like the Borg in Star Trek. Whatever counter-measures you take, they eventually learn to adapt to and circumvent. If you set up your comms software to zap all incoming messages with, say, "Make Money Fast!!!" or "Hot New Web site!!!" in their headers, or those from the domain cyberpromo.com, they'll simply change their headers and email addresses to something that isn't in your hit list.
Where the company responsible is a large-scale commercial concern, you can eventually get it stopped by contacting the postmaster of the domain it uses or by hiring someone large to go round and break the MD's legs.
Far more difficult to counter, though, and responsible for at least 50 per cent of junk email, are the piddling little fly-by-nights, the responsibility for whom lies squarely with the service providers themselves.
What happens is that people are using those "try before you buy" special promotion cover disks that come with computer magazines, such as those from AOL and CompuServe. These give you, typically, 10 free hours with the service provider before you have to cough up. In those 10 hours, a dedicated spammer can send several thousand unsolicited emails without paying a penny. Of course, the online service soon susses what's going on and closes down the account. But by then the spammer has picked up another cover disk, created a new account and is repeating the exercise.
It's easy enough to counter this so I don't understand why the service providers aren't doing it. For the first month online, the number of email messages you can send should be restricted. About 30 should be enough to say hi to Mum, Auntie Flo and any friends you might have. After that, a lid would go on your account. Only when you've proved you're a respectable, paid-up member of the online community should you be allowed to send more.
Admittedly, this isn't going to stop the large scale commercial concerns.
Some sort of legislation is needed to deal with them. But anything that cuts down on cybergarbage has to be a good thing.
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