Keith F. Lynch

I always welcome email from people who have read any of my web pages, newsgroup postings, email, or other writings, but spam is not welcome here.

Spamming is the sending of unsolicited bulk e-mail, typically to thousands or even millions of e-mail addresses that have been harvested from Usenet newsgroups and other sources. (The term is also used to mean the posting of off-topic messages on large numbers of newsgroups, but I won't address that in this message.)

The proposed Smith bill would outlaw unsolicited commercial e-mail. But the problem is unsolicited BULK e-mail, whether it's commercial or not. There's no problem with non-bulk e-mail, whether it's commercial or not, and whether it's solicited or not. The problem is one person deciding his message is so important that fifty million people should either read it or "just hit delete".

Most spam isn't commercial anyway, at least not in the sense of being about a real product or service. 90% of it is chain letters, pyramid schemes, "stealth" spamming software, lists of millions of e-mail addresses, gadgets for stealing cable TV service, porno web pages, psychic hotlines, bogus "credit repair" for deadbeats, baldness cures, weight loss programs, and similar trash. A lot of it is obviously inflammatory (e.g. ads for child pornography), intended only to get some innocent person in trouble rather than to get money. Racist tracts and religious screeds are also fairly common, and the Smith bill wouldn't address those at all.

I'm baffled that prosecutors and the FTC seem to be unwilling to enforce the many existing laws that the vast majority of spammers are breaking. Theft of services, fraud, mail fraud (i.e. chain letters), wire fraud, forgery, relay hijacking, extortion, harassment, libel, defamation, perjury, conversion, trespass by chattel, racketeering, and conspiracy. Often millions of counts per spammer. But not one spammer has ever spent even one night in jail as far as I know. What's the value of new laws, when existing laws aren't enforced?

I'll bet all it would take is one or two well-publicized prison sentences to make most spammers stop spamming. And whatever prosecutor does it will be one of the most popular people in the world.

How would the sender like it if he were jailed until he had "just hit delete" 50 million times? (Or, for some major spammers, about a BILLION times?) Twice a day they'd get e-mail that their meal was ready, and if they delete THAT message, they skip that meal. So they'd better pay attention, same as everyone else who wants to use e-mail has to, rather than just resting a book on the delete key and relying on auto-repeat.

Have you any idea how long it would take to "just hit delete" a billion times?

In January 1998, a spammer who was upset at my several complaints (once for each of the seven times he spammed me), sent out a spam with MY address forged on it. The result was TENS OF THOUSANDS of angry complaints. And I've probably been added to lots of filters. I've been writing helpful messages almost every day for many years. But thanks to this crook, the majority of messages that have gone out with my name on them are spams. I know who he is and where he is. But is any police department or prosecutor interested in prosecuting? No. Is any lawyer even willing to take my case and sue? Every lawyer I've talked to has advised me not to waste my time.

No wonder so few people complain. Spammers intimidate people into not complaining, and then boast of how few complaints they get! And nobody with the authority to do anything is willing to do anything. The only penalty spammers suffer is losing their throw-away accounts, and having to get more.

I'm baffled that anyone thinks there's any debate over whether e-mail spammers should stop. They will. The only question is whether they will destroy e-mail first, like any parasite that kills its host only to then immediately die itself.

I'm also baffled that anyone thinks the spammers are on the side of "free speech". If they are, then so was the old USSR, for running powerful jamming transmitters intended to make shortwave radio unusable. The effects are similar.

Freedom of speech applies to consenting adults. It doesn't mean anyone has the right to paste their ad over someone else's billboard without the permission of the owner. Or that they can scratch their message onto the side of your new car. Or that they can broadcast it from a loudspeaker outside your bedroom window at 3 am and refuse to stop. Nor does it matter whether it's a commercial message or not. It does mean that two people who WANT to communicate can do so, no matter what the subject matter.

We don't have freedom of speech now on the net, when anyone who dares post anything to any newsgroup is punished by being plagued with tens of thousands of junk e-mail messages in retaliation.

Things I've done to help fight e-mail spam:

For about a year, I was maintaining a web page containing toll-free (800 & 888) numbers seen in recent e-mail spam. My intention was that every spam opponent would dial each number just once to express their displeasure, and that the resulting flood of calls which the spammers had to pay for would at least get them to stop using toll-free numbers if not stop spamming. Or better yet, that it would shame them into stopping, or shame their phone-answering employees into quitting their jobs.

This was a lot of work, so I finally stopped doing it since hardly anyone was calling the numbers (as I discovered by obtaining a toll-free number of my own and adding it to the list).

I attend anti-spam-related events such as the FTC hearing in June 1997, and the ISOC meeting in April 1998, and report on them to other spam opponents.

I post helpful messages in anti-spam newsgroups.

I put up a web page containing thousands of fake e-mail addresses for spammers to harvest, and have encouraged others to do the same.

I write to journalists.

I maintain a spam timeline showing when various spam-related events, terms, concepts, people, and sites were first mentioned.

I do not support the proposed e-mail spam complaint moratorium. I don't see what good it would do. I believe almost everyone who knows how to complain and is willing to do so is already complaining. Most people who get lots of spam either leave the net in despair, or use all manner of ad hoc filters whose inevitable side effect is to discard some valid e-mail. Since so much e-mail is being discarded unread, most people are no longer willing to take the time to write thoughtful, informative, or entertaining messages.

Also, people often hide their addresses, which also cuts off communication. I've often spent an hour replying to someone's posting, only to discover that they posted with a fake address, and there's no way to deduce their real address.

It's very much like the effect of crime on a neighborhood. People surrender their parks and sidewalks, and stop trusting people.

Quite aside from the lost opportunity cost when this wonderful communications medium is rendered almost unusable, the direct costs of spam on recipients are certainly well into the billions of dollars. How much does the disk space, bandwidth, and recipient's time cost from each spam? Ten cents? Well, multiply that by several tens of billions -- the estimated number of spams that have been sent. There are lists of up to 80 million e-mail addresses available. And several spammers who reuse such lists weekly. And a vastly larger number of small-time or one-time spammers.

I heard Sanford Wallace and Walt Rines repeatedly lie under oath at the FTC hearings last year. Why aren't they in jail for perjury?

As far as I know, no spammer has ever even made minimum wage from spamming. After a billion spams, Sanford Wallace is offline and broke, for instance. And be sure to see for a look at those idiots who send chain letters.

Please feel free to quote me. Quote anything on my web pages, and any posting of mine you find via DejaNews. I refuse to run and hide. Let the spammers run and hide.

I send complaints about all the spam I get. I hope that if I stop having the time to do so, that others will pick up the slack. If nobody were to complain, the spam volume would zoom well into the trillions, and the net would cease to exist in the form we know it. Maybe it would continue as a collection of corporate web pages we could "surf" with our million channel TV sets. But as a two way communications medium it would be as obsolete as Morse's telegraph.

Complaints have had a very noticeable effect over the past year. The amount of spam I get has leveled off at about 100 to 150 messages per day. Had it continued to increase on the same exponential curve, it would have reached well over 1000 per day by now.

Those who post to fewer newsgroups, or less often, or from fewer different accounts, or who started posting more recently, generally get less spam. Those who don't post at all, and whose e-mail address never appears in web pages or anywhere else that spammers harvest, may get none at all, and probably wonder what all the fuss is about. The amount of spam has leveled off for just about everyone. But not decreased, unfortunately.

There are no longer any major spam-friendly sites. AGIS was the last. For a while, I was getting 50 a day from them. And their abuse address was disabled. I finally ended up forwarding every single AGIS spam back to every single AGIS employee address I knew, as did thousand of other outraged recipients.

Also, most US sites have secured their servers so they can't be hijacked. Most relay hijacking is of overseas sites now.

More recently, NETCOM finally agreed to stop harboring the web sites of spammers who spammed from elsewhere.

That leaves "whack-a-mole" spammers who use throwaway accounts. And customer-of-a-customer-of-a-customer dodges, in which a spammer masquerades as a whole chain of unrelated companies, each the customer of another, so as to be able to spam as long as possible after signing up with a backbone provider, as each company earnestly promises to get their customer to deal with the spam coming from their customer's customer, while of course actually doing nothing.

Most spam recipients never complain. Or if they do, it's to their own ISP, or to the sites that the spammers forged their messages to falsely appear to be from.

A lot of them are taking the advice I've seen in several of the newer books about the net: Always keep your e-mail address secret, except from those you trust. Never post to Usenet, at least not without forging your address. Sigh. What a terrible waste.

This is advice I refuse to take. I've never forged my address or hidden my identity. I've never refrained from posting or doing anything else out of fear of spammers. I've never filtered or discarded e-mail unread. I've never switched e-mail addresses to avoid spam. When I moved from DIGEX to CLARKNET a year ago, I arranged to have mail sent to my old DIGEX account forwarded to my new CLARKNET account, and it's still being forwarded. Since last summer, I've refused to sign up with any more remove lists, whether or not they claim to be "universal" or "global". And I've stopped being polite to spammers, or allowing them "one free bite" before I complain.

I'm signed up with over a dozen "universal" or "global" remove lists, some for over three years. The result each time is only that I start getting more spam. Others who have signed up virgin addresses reported that those addresses immediately started getting spammed.

At least no reputable ISP suggests remove lists anymore, as they used to when I complained about spam. If one does, I know that they are a rogue site themselves, and I complain to their upstream provider.

I wish I didn't have to spend all this time writing complaints. I'm really not the complaining type, believe it or not. But there's not much else I can do. And it does work.

I CC my complaint to the abuse, postmaster, hostmaster, and webmaster addresses on the site the spammer is sending from, and at any sites which he's forging or hijacking, or which are hosting a "drop-box" reply address, or which are hosting his web page, or which appear to be victimized in any way. If any of them appear to be rogue (in cahoots with the spammer), I also complain to their upstream site(s).

I also CC all relevant government agencies. The FTC and the attorney general of his state if he's doing forgery, hijacking, repeat harassment, advertising a pyramid scheme, advertising a stolen list of e-mail addresses, or anything else illegal. The FDA for medical scams, the SEC for stock scams, the RCMP if he's sending from Canada, etc.

The cost of spam on ISPs is even greater than on individuals. They typically have to hire several new people just to deal with spam, and worry about securing their mail servers against relays, and invest in more bandwidth, disk space, and processor power just to deal with the immense flood of unwanted messages inundating their users.

I wrote the above in 1998. In 2001 I was very reluctantly forced to start filtering my email. Sigh.

Return to Keith Lynch's home page.

Last updated November 17th, 2001. Keith Lynch