Friday, September 02, 2005

Spam Is a Big Deal

The following post is excerpted from Paul Myer's Talkbiz News ezine. To subscribe to his newsletter, go to


A recent case resulted in a spammer getting nine years in jail for various felonious activities that were part of his spamming operation. A gentleman [cough] on one of the boards asked the question: "Is it just me, or is the war on spam getting a little ridiculous and out of hand?"

He seems to think that 9 years for fraud is too much. After all, it's just email, right? Can you believe there are people out there with enough brains to type whole sentences, with verbs and nouns and everything, who still don't get it?

For those of you who might feel tempted to ask the same question, here's what I had to say to him:

It's just you. You're not paying attention.

If someone were to do to any other medium what spammers have done to email, they'd be jailed much more quickly.

--> Try tying up the phone lines of every single person in the world with a listed number, and then flooding the system with guesses to get to the unlisted ones.

--> Leave long messages, so that people can't get voicemail from folks they want to hear from.

--> Build an autodialing set-up so powerful that it overwhelms the global phone system. Autodial emergency service numbers, government and business offices, hospitals, airports, cell phones...

--> Get every telephone in the world ringing all day, every day, non-stop.

--> Oh yeah... Then develop hacks that get innocent people's telephones to do your autodialing for you. (Probably 25% to 50% of the subscribers to this newsletter are sending spam right now and don't know it. A lot of it p**n spam.)

--> When someone answers, pitch them on fake jewelry, patent medicines and illegally delivered prescriptions. Trick them with con games to get their banking and credit information so you can steal their identities.

--> Or just breathe heavy. To 100 million people. At once.

See if you don't get tossed in prison.

Spammers cost the global economy billions of dollars annually in direct monetary costs. There's no way to estimate the cost in terms of damaged or destroyed data resulting from the viruses/trojans they plant on people's systems. And the cost in plain old human time lost forever.

I have an acquaintance who runs a small midwestern ISP. He has over 100X the machine power in place that's needed to deliver all of his customers' legitimate email. It's not enough. He's currently planning to go to 500X the necessary capacity. A large part of that is needed to handle filtering. If he doesn't stop the majority of the spam, his customers will go somewhere else, thinking they're going to get less spam. They won't, unless they're also willing to accept a lot of legitimate email getting dumped by the filters. He estimates that when the necessary hardware required hits 1000X legit needs, it will no longer be POSSIBLE for him to offer email. It's already losing him money.

The estimates of the cost of keeping up with spam (just on the ISPs' part) range between $2 and $5 per customer, per month. There are at least 600 million people online globally. Say it's $3/month, and that's $1.8 BILLION dollars that ISPs spend every month just trying to reduce the flow.

Yeah. Throw them in jail, and lose the key.

And while we're at it, let's boot every ... person ... who says spam isn't that big a deal off the net. You're dangerous to the rest of us.

The problem is much bigger than that description, but it makes the point. Next time someone says something stupid like, "Spam is no big deal," and you don't want to waste a lot of time arguing with them, send them a copy of that.

Then suggest that they go back to the prescribed dosage.


John's Comments: It still boggles my mind that the software and hardware people who make so much money because of the Internet haven't figured out a way to abolish spam. There certainly are some workable solutions, but any filtering system still filters out wanted mail along with the spam. No system is perfect.

I certainly don't know what to do about the spam problem because I'm not a software programmer and I don't understand all the details on how email works. But I do know that spam hurts me in two ways:

1. It costs me time to filter out spam email and to go through the automatically filtered email that might contain important communications I want. I currently have three filtering systems for incoming spam, and I still get 20 to 30 spam messages a day, many of them obvious spam. If I were writing the filtering software, I would catch more of that obvious spam.

2. It costs me readers. I know that my Book Marketing Tip of the Week, which has 8,000 subscribers, doesn't get through to all of them. That means that people who really want my tips and resource listings don't always get them. That's one reason I've put more attention on this blog where people can come to visit when they get time -- and nothing filters out my messages. But this solution has a great flaw: It relies on users to actively seek out my blog (even with RSS, blog readers still have to take an active step to read my new blog posts).

If you're not always getting my email tip of the week, be sure to put my email ( on your white list, acceptable list, approved list, or whatever it's called in your email program or spam scanning service.

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