What's Spam? No, it's not the luncheon meat that people either love or hate. Spam, on the Web, is unsolicited e-mail, unwanted e-mail, frequently sent in bulk and advertising some commercial proposition. A major part of the Spam you probably get, and what this article deals with, is BUCE (Bulk Unsolicited Commercial E-Mail).
Besides the hidden costs passed on to users by ISPs that must invest in additional hardware and personnel to handle the vast amounts of Spam, there is a direct cost. People have to pay money for the dubious privilege of receiving all this Spam. For example, my friend was traveling and decided to check his hotmail. So, he went to the only cybercafe in town (if he'd had a laptop, he could have connected to the Web from his hotel).
When he logged in, the inbox took forever to load on a slow connection. All the while, he moodily glared at the clock and thought of all the cash that was flying out of his wallet (if he'd been in a hotel, his phone bill could be huge, and if he couldn't get a local Internet connection, he'd also have to pay a long-distance fee). At last, the inbox opened up showing 10 new messages waiting for him. They were:
Spams (Click here for XXX)--4
The toll this stuff takes adds up—in terms of time (who has time for all of this?) and money. Even with low long-distance charges in some parts of the world, hotels tend to charge a premium. And if you're outside the United States, even a local call can be costly.
My friend in India spent 50 rupees—a sizable sum in India—all for the privilege of downloading junk. You should have heard him cursing. On the other hand, he became quite happy when I showed him how to complain to all of the Spammers' ISPs and he started getting several mails saying: "This user's mail ID/Web site has been deleted for Spamming. Sorry for the inconvenience.''
Even if you have a free Internet account and local calls are free, you have to remember that in most parts of the world, including India, local calls are NOT free, and ISP accounts are quite expensive.
As an example, a company set up a mail server in India to provide free e-mail accounts to all of its employees. Taking all costs into account, it cost the company roughly 2 cents to send or receive an e-mail. Doesn't sound like much, but wait.
A recent survey that polled several ISPs (including biggies such as AOL) estimated that 30% of the mail coming into/going out of their servers was Spam.
Now suppose the company sends and receives 3,000 e-mails a day, only 15% of which is Spam. This company has to pay $135 a month extra just for the privilege of receiving junk mail. Translated into rupees, that comes to 6,000 rupees a month. For what it's worth, that's about 30% of an Indian's average monthly salary!
Sure, you don't pay anything, but a lot of people do. It's the skewed economics of the Internet that created and blew up this problem. Unlike postal mail, for which the entire cost is borne by the marketer, there is generally no per-message charge to send e-mail: It's included in your ISP's bill (or is free).
This is excellent for people who want to keep in touch with friends and relatives, but the economics naturally lend themselves to abuse. All a Spammer needs to send out a million messages is an Internet account, a list of e-mail addresses of various people (none of whom asked for his junk in the first place), and a computer (though if this sounds good and you're considering it, it can take a day to send that much mail, even going 24 hours a day, and most ISPs won't put up with this and will turn off your account).
According to a survey conducted earlier this year by ChooseYourMail.com, pornographers are responsible for 30.2% of the Spam on the 'Net today. Just behind them are the "Get Rich Quick" and "Make Money Fast" scam artists, who send about 29.6 % of the Spam. The remainder advertises assorted products and services; a small percentage illegally offer stock tips (for junk stocks of dubious value).
As I said earlier, most ISPs forbid Spamming and disconnect the Internet accounts and Web sites of any Spammer. So, Spammers often attempt to cover their tracks by sending mail through insecure servers around the world instead of their ISPs' mail servers. This passes on most of the cost to the insecure server's owner, who has to clear up the mess caused by the Spammer while legitimate e-mail reaching its users is blocked in a mammoth traffic jam. Most of the "bulk mail" and "stealth mail" software you come across does this.
Recently, a disturbing trend has cropped up. Even legitimate, reputable companies have started sending Spam mails. The real problem in the coming year won't be from fly-by-night crooks and scam artists, it will be from legitimate companies that view Spam (or unsolicited bulk e-mail) as a way to market themselves more effectively.
How much mail would you get if every company you have done business with, every supermarket you bought from, sent you an e-mail once a week telling you about their latest "special offer"?
And suppose their competitors got your e-mail address and sent you another mail trying to convince you to buy from them. Other companies get corporate directories (such as the local chamber of commerce directory or the yellow pages) and send ads to each e-mail address they see in the list.
I recently got a huge Spam from a marketing outfit advertising a "Venture Capital for IT" seminar in my hometown. A copy of this Spam reached various people, most or all of whom had never asked for it or wanted it in the first place. One recipient was the abuse desk of a small American ISP, an unlikely group to be interested in a trade show in an Indian city.
The company made several pathetic statements in its Spam, which are, unfortunately, still believed by several marketers who think e-mail is just like postal mail.
"You are receiving this mail because you happen to be in the industry and we view you as a very important and focused client, or you chose to subscribe to our mailing list or were added by a friend"
What they are saying is that you are forced to receive their mail just because you have an e-mail address. You never asked for it and never wanted it in the first place. I have a strong objection to paying my ISP just for the privilege of downloading Spam.
As for the last excuse, all responsible marketers are supposed to send a confirmation mail to the address from which a "subscription request" was received. OK, you now say, "I get over a hundred people subscribing to my list every week!! I can't mail each one of them asking if they really want to subscribe." That's what software is for. Many e-mail systems can send automatic replies based on "TO:" or "Subject" areas in the message.
This confirmation is a standard feature in most automated mailing list software (the professional grade, heavy duty ones such as Majordomo/Listserv, as well as the free Web-based lists such as eGroups http://www.egroups.com and Topica <http://www.topica.com >. It is more ethical, and it saves you from some embarrassing situations.
Some systems make the mistake of saying, "To subscribe or add a friend, just send us a mail and type out the name and e-mail ID of the person who should be added to our list."
By doing so, marketers are saying they will add any and every e-mail address they get to their list, without confirming whether the person wants their sales pitch or not. This is extremely unethical, and rather dangerous.
It's dangerous because it leaves you liable to charges that you are a Spammer if the person you added to your list is not interested and perhaps complains to your ISP. Besides this, some miscreant can easily sign up addresses such as <firstname.lastname@example.org> and <email@example.com> and arrange for Clinton and Gates to get your junk mail with possibly disastrous results. A complaint to your ISP from the White House can leave you wondering where your beautiful Web site has gone.
"To unsubscribe send a mail to the following address.''
Please, be sure your Reply-to address is a working address, and that you actually unsubscribe people when they ask. A lot of junk mail uses fake addresses, so your mail just comes back—making people angrier.
Would you trust a company's products or services if this is how they treated you? Probably not. So Spam can hurt your business more than it helps.
Many people get really angry when they receive unsolicited e-mail. They say, "I never subscribed to this so called 'mailing list' in the first place. I never asked to receive this sales pitch. Now, why should I unsubscribe from a list I never subscribed to in the first place?" So instead, they choose to mail the ISP of the person who sent the e-mail, complaining that this person is a Spammer.
All legitimate, opt-in mailing lists (that is, a list to which all the members subscribed on their own and were not added arbitrarily) need a clear, simple way to unsubscribe.
Every post you send the list must have a clear and simple way to unsubscribe, either by mailing a certain address or clicking on a link to a Web page.
Take the FuseLetter, for example. It uses a commercial-grade list server called Lyris.net. Daniel Will-Harris, editor of eFuse, says: "The end of each e-mail contains a custom unsubscribe address, so it doesn't matter where you send it from, it connects that custom address with your original signup address, which is simple and effective."
It's best to KISS your removal instructions (Keep It Simple, Stupid) so even average users can follow the instructions and unsubscribe any time they wish. When you (or your list software) gets the unsubscribe request, send a goodbye note, confirming that the person has been removed from the list.
For example, if you decide to unsubscribe from the FuseLetter, you'll get a reply that says:
Well, we're sorry to see you go, but we hope you find success, health and happiness in whatever you choose to do. Honestly. We mean it. No hard feelings.
Come back and visit us at http://www.efuse.com any time of the day or night. You're always welcome.
Will-Harris, editor, http://www.efuse.com
When people can't figure it out...
No matter what you do, there will always be some people who either can't read directions, or don't want to. They'll just hit "reply" and tell you to unsubscribe. If that happens, don't blow up and call the person a "clueless nitwit" even if you think they are.
As Will-Harris says, "I don't add people to the FuseLetter, and yet sometimes people forget they subscribed themselves, then they flame me because they're all upset about other Spam, but people don't get the FuseLetter unless they sign up for it."
In such cases, take a deep breath, count to 10 and unsubscribe the person yourself.
About the author
Suresh Ramasubramanian is President of the Indian chapter of CAUCE--an international organization of people dedicated to fighting Spam. He is Webmaster and list administrator of K-Circle, one of India's oldest trivia quiz societies.
Illustration: Jens Bonnke Directions in Technology from Artville