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All About Spam

By Guest Writer Elena Fawkner

Spam. It is the bane of anyone who conducts business online. It is becoming such a major headache that law-makers the world over are struggling to legislate it out of existence, alas without much success. For the time being at least, it's here to stay, so let's take a look at the dreaded stuff -- what it is, what it isn't, what you can do about it and how to avoid doing it yourself.

What it is

What it is, is the registered trademark of the Hormel Foods Corporation (see http://www.spam.com). It is canned meat, very popular with the military so I understand.

Purists, however, will tell you that, in the internet context, spam is either a single article posted repeatedly to large number of Usenet newsgroups or email sent to a large number of addresses. In its previous incarnation, for an email to be spam it had to be sent in large quantities. That was the key characteristic. Now, of course, the definition has broadened and the focus has shifted from one of quantity or volume to recipient-consent, more particularly the lack thereof, regardless of the number of recipients.

The term "spam" comes from a famous Monty Python sketch. As explained by Hormel Foods itself: "Use of the term "SPAM" [in the internet context] was adopted as a result of the Monty Python skit in which a group of Vikings sang a chorus of "SPAM, SPAM, SPAM ..." in an increasing crescendo, drowning out other conversation. Hence, the analogy applied because UCE [unsolicited commercial email] was drowning out normal discourse on the internet." For the rest of spam.com's interesting position statement on the use of its trademark in this fashion, see Spam.com.

A good spam analogy is the unsolicited telemarketing calls that invariably come when you're in the middle of dinner. The difference between spammers and telemarketers, however, is that telemarketers don't have the gall to expect you to pay to receive the call (other than in terms of your time). The spammer, on the other hand, does indeed have the gall, and in spades.

The generally accepted current definition of spam encompasses five categories of email.

1. Unsolicited ads sent via email to any number of recipients (even one). Some people would not agree with this definition on the grounds that if it's only sent to one (or only a few), then it is not sent in sufficient quantity to qualify as spam. Personally, I don't give a flying fig how many OTHER people are receiving the same rubbish, I only care that I am.

2. Unsolicited bulk mailing, regardless of its nature. This would include bulk mailing of the latest round of dumb blonde jokes, not just commercial advertising material. Again, I don't really care what kind of rubbish it is, only that it is rubbish and it's landed in my inbox.

3. Off-topic postings to mailing lists, newsgroups or other forums. I would agree with this definition where the off-topic posting was commercial in nature, frivolous (such as jokes) or completely irrelevant (such as religious sermonizing to a completely disinterested group) but wouldn't consider it spam if, for example, someone belonging to and regularly contributing to a mailing list related to cats posted an "off topic" message with a question about their sick dog.

4. Using mailing lists or newsgroups in a manner outside the volume or frequency its readers signed up for. It is one thing to sign up for an ezine, it's quite another to be bombarded with the ezine owner's advertising messages three times a day, every day.

5. Adding someone to a mailing list without consent and requiring them to opt-out. This is particularly annoying. Not only has someone had the temerity to arbitrarily add you to their list without your consent, they require YOU to take a positive step to get off it!

I would add a sixth category, and if you're an ezine publisher you'll know *exactly* what I'm talking about:

6. Signing up for an ezine using an autoresponder address so that the ezine publisher receives your advertising every time they send the ezine that you signed up for.

Whether you agree with the above definitions or not, they all have one common thread ... whether the recipient consented to receive the mail.

That is a good rule of thumb and you won't go far wrong in your business mailings if you ask yourself this question every time before you send a message: did the recipients (and each and every one of them) consent, in some form, to receiving this mail? Now, obviously, not every one on your list has specifically emailed you and asked to be added to your mailing list. For example, most list members will have subscribed themselves to your ezine by completing a form at your site, or web-site visitors will have indicated consent to receiving updates about your site by supplying their email address when submitting a survey that clearly stated that by submitting their email address they consent to receiving email from you from time to time.

And NO, for our purposes, it doesn't change the character of a spam email to include removal instructions. It is spam when it's sent to someone who didn't in some way ask to receive it. The wrong is in the *sending*. Period.

You've no doubt been the recipient of (way too much) email that starts out "This is not spam [just love these]. This message is being sent in compliance with H.R. Bill 12345 which states that the sender of an email cannot be prosecuted for sending unsolicited commercial email if the email contains remove instructions."

In the first place, to the best of my knowledge, such a bill has not yet passed into law (although several do finally appear to be close to proclamation). In the second place, the provisions of such legislation will be relevant to whether the transmission of the email concerned is *lawful*. The issue of spam as it relates to you and me and our online businesses is about more than whether it is lawful. It is about whether it is good business practice to make the recipients of your advertising bear the cost of your sending it without asking you to do so in the first place.

Whether it's lawful or not, it's just NOT good business practice and people have every *right* to object to paying ISP fees for the privilege of receiving junk mail.

What it isn't

Bulk email sent to an opt-in list is not spam. What's opt-in? Simply, it means that the recipients "opted" to receive email from you by taking some positive step such as providing an email address for that purpose, or by confirming they wished to subscribe to an ezine (or, in the case some third party subscribed them without their knowledge, failing to unsubscribe themselves) when the publisher sends an acknowledgement of subscription including unsubscribe instructions in case the person had been subscribed by a third party.

Just because it's sent in bulk doesn't make it spam (under the currently accepted definitions). I publish an ezine each week and send it to my opt-in list of several thousand people. That is not spamming because, to the best of my knowledge, each person on my list signed up to receive it. The fact that several people on my list may have been signed up by malicious third parties as part of a concerted mailbomb attack (with the intent that the recipient be flooded with mail from all quarters) doesn't make ME a spammer unless I know that the person didn't subscribe, wanted to be removed and I failed to remove them ONCE they gave me the correct email address used to subscribe them! To protect yourself from this type of complaint, see "How to Be Sure You're Not Doing It" below.

Whether it's spamming to send email to someone just because they've emailed you first is a gray area. Some people staunchly maintain that they're free to email you anything without fear of being guilty of spamming if you send them anything first. Personally, I don't subscribe to this theory. If I subscribe to your ezine, I don't think that entitles me to bombard you with my advertising. On this view, it follows that those "subscribers" who have signed up to my ezine using an autoresponder address that sends an ad in response to mailings of the ezine, are spamming.

By the same token, how is one to initiate a business transaction if no-one can make the first move? I receive, on a fairly regular basis, email from people wanting to do business with me. These emails are, without question, commercial solicitations -- they're making me a business proposal. Spamming? Not in my book. If someone takes the time and trouble to select my site or me as a prospective business partner, they'll get a considered response. But send the same message to 1,000 of us (such as an invitation to participate in your new affiliate program) and you've just crossed the line. Where that fine line is is not easy to determine. It is easy to say from the edges what's spamming and what isn't but the closer you get to that fine line in the middle, the blurrier it becomes.

How to reduce it

So, now that you know what spam is, how do you reduce it?
Spam Filters
The first way is using spam filters. These are the equivalent of caller ID to weed out the telemarketers (all those "unknown caller" calls you get).

Three spam filters recommended by the authoritative zdnet.com (http://www.zdnet.com) are Novasoft's SpamKiller which filters email against an extensive listing of known spammers, subjects and headers (free trial, thereafter $29.95 to buy); Contact Plus' SpamBuster which comes with an editable list of 15,000 spammers (free trial, thereafter $19.95 to buy); and Fundi Software's Mail Guard which previews messages and blocks those from defined sources at the source (free to try, $20 to buy).

Filter Function
In addition to these commercially available spam filters, your existing email program already probably provides a filter function. These built-in filters can normally be set up to filter emails with particular words or characters in the subject line (such as $$$$$, FREE!!!!) as well as emails without your email address in the "To:" field. Make sure to make a list of ezines and mailing lists you are a member of before finalizing your filters though, otherwise you'll delete everything without your email address in the header.
Protecting Your Email Address
An often-recommended (but, as I will explain, dubious) strategy is to protect your email address from harvesting by putting in some obviously-to-be-removed characters in your email address where it appears in the "From" field, for example, yourname@isp.nospam.com . The theory is that a human (as distinct from a spammer's email-address-harvesting robot) wanting to respond to your email will know enough to delete the "nospam." part of the address. In theory that's all very well. In my experience though, there are plenty of people out there who are clueless when it comes to this sort of technicality (many of whom are your prospective customers) and will not understand what's going on when their mail to you keeps bouncing. A VERY good way to lose prospective customers.
Never Reply
NEVER NEVER NEVER respond to spam or act on the "remove" address. At best the address probably won't work. At worst, you'll confirm to the spammer that your address is valid and mail to it is being read. The result of which, of course, is more of the same.
Use Separate Email Addresses
Use a separate email address when posting to newsgroups and mailing lists since these are rich sources of email addresses for spammer-harvesters.
Go Big Game Hunting
Spend all your time hunting down spammers and prosecuting them to the fullest extent of the law. There is NO END of resources devoted to that very subject. There are people out there, I kid you not, who have made it their life's work to track down the source of every single piece of unsolicited email they receive. You too can join this most worthy cause. Of course, you will put yourself out of business in the process because instead of spending your time on productive business activities you're spending it tracking down the source of all of your spam email. But, of course, if you put yourself out of business you will no longer need an email address and need never bother with spam again! What a clever little vegemite!

So, if you're bored out of your tree and have absolutely NOTHING better to do with your time and figure that spammer-hunting is at least as worthwhile an expenditure of time as watching Oprah or Blind Date, be my guest. I recommend the CAUCE ("Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial Email") web-site at http://www.cauce.org as a good place start your new crusade.

Avoid Providing Your Email Address
If filling out forms online, avoid giving your email address if at all possible. If that's not possible, then made sure you check "no" next to the box that asks if its OK to send mail to that address.
AOL Users
If you're an AOL user, delete your member profile. These profiles are a rich source of personal information ... a spammer's dream.

How to be sure you're not doing it

Here's a few rules to help keep you on the straight and narrow:

  • DON'T send anything (except genuine business proposals to carefully selected individuals), especially commercial advertisements, surveys, questionnaires etc. to anyone who hasn't given their permission to receive it.

  • DON'T send chain mail. I don't care what the mail says will happen to you if you don't pass it on. What will happen to you if you do is worse.

  • DO use the BCC field to send bulk mail to your opt-in list, NEVER the CC field. By placing the email addresses of your recipients in the BCC (blind carbon copy) field, those addresses are "blind" or hidden from the view of the recipients. If you put them in the CC field, everyone can see everybody else's address.

  • DO be selective when it comes to your email source. Don't fall for the million addresses on this one $9.95 CD hype. There are reputable sources of email lists you can rent or buy if that's the way you want to go. Try http://www.postmasterdirect.com as one example. Remember: you get what you pay for.

  • DO state your terms of use of email addresses clearly. If it's a condition of receiving your ezine that your subscribers accept daily ads from you, say this up front at the place on your site where the prospective subscriber provides their email address.

  • DO verify email addresses/subscriptions by emailing subscribers to confirm receipt of their subscription and providing them with a way of unsubscribing if someone else subscribed them. Some publishers require the subscriber to email back an acknowledgement. That is called "double opt-in" which is even safer.

  • DO keep a record of all subscribe requests if you publish an ezine so you can prove, in response to an unjustified spam complaint, that the recipient did, indeed, opt-in to your list.

    Although spam appears set to be an unfortunate fact of Internet life, by utilizing the above techniques you will minimize much of the inconvenience, distraction and just plain hassle that goes along with it. Hopefully one day in the not too distant future, someone, somewhere will finally come up with an effective means of eradication. Until then, we'll all just have to keep putting up with it.

    Article by Elena Fawkner. Elena is editor of A Home-Based Business Online - practical ideas, resources and strategies for your home-based or online business.

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