IDG’S PC World Cooks Up Spam: Reveals How it Happens

SAN FRANCISCO, Oct. 7 — According to America Online, some 40 percent of the 15 million pieces of e-mail it processes daily is spam. The Gartner Group estimates that one out of 10 e-mails sent in the world is junk mail; and one in four junk e-mails hawks pornography. Of nearly 100,000 pieces of mail that consumers forwarded to the Spam Recycling Center, 35,000 were get-rich schemes. And, roughly 10 percent of the fraud-related complaints received by the National Consumers League's Internet Fraud Watch involve e-mail scams.

More than just another direct mail tactic, spam is not only irritating, it can clog networks, slow the delivery of mail, and even crash servers. It also exacts a toll on consumers' valuable time, money — and potentially, their privacy. In PC World's November feature, "Spam! How It Happens, and How to Beat It," (online now at www.pcworld.com/nov99/spam and on news stands October 19), editors delve into the source of the problem, set themselves up as spam targets, offer a handful of anti-spam tips, and review tools and services to "can the spam."

Where does spam originate? The more actively people surf the Internet, the more likely their names will appear on a spammer's list-harvested from newsgroups, Web pages, and chat rooms. AOL, for example, has a reputation as a favorite target of spammers.

But why is spam such a problem? Marketing companies now use e-mail addresses as unique identifiers, much like Social Security numbers, to track consumers and compile comprehensive lifestyle and behavior data about them. While offline marketers have been limited to collecting data such as birth date, credit information, and purchasing habits, online marketers can build a much more detailed profile based on the Web sites users register with. According to Jason Catlett, president of Junkbusters, "(Online data collection) is very invasive and has serious connotations for consumer privacy."

While consumers probably can't shield themselves from all junk-email, it's possible to slow the flow. Anti-spam software like SpamScan97 (www.webster-image.com) and Spam Buster (www.contactplus.com) are good choices. Free spam-screening services like Bright Mall (www.brightmall.com) claim to weed out junk, with some drawbacks. Anonymous remailers like Nymserver (www.nymserver.com) keep real addresses secret when posting to newsgroups, but will forward any e-mail replies. To trace junk mail to its source SpamCop (spamcop.net) parses the header and determines where the message originated. The Network Abuse Clearinghouse (www.abuse.net) will also forward a letter of complaint for you to the service from which the spam was sent. Finally, PC World's editors offer some helpful anti-spam tips:

— Fight Back: report spam to your ISP, or forward junk e-mail to the Spam Recycling Center (spamrecycle@ChooseYourMail.com)

— Just Say No: Review the privacy policy of any Web site before offering your e-mail address and be sure to "opt out."

— Open a Spam Account: Foil spammers by using a free Web-based e-mail address for public postings and Web site registrations. When the spam account fills up, dump the trash.

— Alter Your Newsgroup Address: Insert "no-spam" in the From: or Reply-to: fields.

— Be Anonymous: Set your browser so it doesn't provide your e-mail address as the password when you download files from anonymous FTP connections.

— Don't Respond: Do not respond to spam via the "remove" option; while some marketers honor such requests, it confirms your address, and will likely generate more mail.

— Filter Your Mail: ISPs and e-mail programs provide filters, or check out the tools and services recommended in the article, www.pcworld.com/nov99/spam.

The winner of the 1999 Grand Neal Award for editorial excellence, PC World is the world's largest computer publication with a circulation rate base of 1.25 million (effective with the January 2000 issue). PC World and pcworld.com ( http://www.pcworld.com ) are published by PC World Communications, Inc., a subsidiary of IDG, the world's leading IT media, research and exposition company. IDG publishes more than 290 computer magazines and newspapers and 500 book titles and offers online users the largest network of technology-specific sites around the world through IDG.net ( http://www.idg.net ), which comprises more than 250 targeted Web sites in 55 countries. IDG is also a leading producer of 168 computer-related expositions worldwide, and provides IT market analysis through 49 offices in 41 countries worldwide. Company information is available at http://www.idg.com/.