June 20, 2004

Night of the living spam

By: Joanne McNeil

Have you ever tried to imagine what a spammer looks like? “Vigrax,” for example, could be a slovenly European–Dutch probably–writing these bizarre email advertisements in a dark, dirty studio apartment with “herbal viagra” vials stacked to the ceiling.

Vigrax is actually the Internet’s answer to a George A. Romero creation. Four-fifths of the spam we receive comes from undead technology, contaminated with Trojan horse infections. You might not even realize your computer is a zombie as it spams the world about the “asian teen cam.”

For that reason, enforcing spam regulations will work as well as Dr. Logan’s teaching experiments in Day of the Dead. The Federal Trade Commission acknowledged this last week when they rejected Congress’ plan to create a “Do Not Spam” list. Because we can’t verify the origins of anonymous email enforcing sanction would be impossible. Worse, spammers might get a copy of a registry and use it against the listed addresses.

“Under current technology, any do-not-e-mail list would become a do-spam list,” FTC Chairman Timothy Muris said at a recent press conference.

The problem spam creates is far worse and more costly than telemarketing or junk mail. Bulk e-mail slows the processing time of Internet service providers and wastes their bandwidth. It’s unclear how ISPs can step up their filtering techniques to stop the problem from growing.

And spammers are smart. The unwanted email we receive is third or fourth-wave spam, designed to obfuscate filters we have in place. Instead of Viagra, they advertise “V^agR@.” They approve “mo rt gage info,” and have “H o t M*I*L*Fs begging 4u.”

Spammers also flood their messages with Dada-inspired gibberish like, “any fairy can mourn inferiority complex about, but it takes a real hydrogen atom to from reactor,” which I just received from “Arnulfo Reese.” Others take real literature, like Emily Dickenson poems, and insert them in the message, sometimes invisible to us in white text. While these methods stump some text analyzing filters, better filters, like SpamBayes, which is catered to an individual mailbox, look for messages with a great number of uncommonly used words like “haploid” and “pirouette,” or missing connectors like “and” and “the”.

If regular spam messages have a low response rate, “word salad” emails must attract even fewer. Who’s going to order diplomas online if he needs to read through a jumbled Tolstoy passage just to find the sales pitch? Email marketing, if it were person-to-person like a telephone call, would die naturally as it can’t keep up with the spam filter “arms race.”

But the Undead aren’t about the bottom line. The issue that needs to be addressed is how to stop our own computers from adding to the problem. Unlike George A. Romero’s zombie attacks, we’ve got firewalls and virus protection that prevents PC zombification. Want to stop spam? Start using them.

Joanne McNeil is a writer in Washington, D.C. Her website is joannemcneil.com.