Junk E-mail

E-mail is the most popular use of the Internet, and has changed the way many of us do business. But people are abusing it in a number of ways. Stan Bunger reports.

Junk mail now makes up more than 20 percent of all mail delivered in the U.S. Now, e-mail users are facing the same aggravation these days.

Unsolicited e-mail, or spam, is creating a major controversy on the Internet. "The fundamental issue is that spam costs the recipient more than it costs the sender," says Scott Hazen Mueller, a soft-spoken engineer who's emerged as a spam-fighter.

Spam's the dark side of e-mail -- a way for anyone with a list of e-mail addresses to send out millions of messages over and over again.

v-grab "I've just received two spams just while we were talking -- 'How to Get a US Government Job' and 'How to Sell on the Internet'. It's just amazing how much of this stuff you get," adds Mueller.

It sure is. Mueller figures half of his daily e-mail is spam.

As a test, we set up an e-mail account. The result? We never got a single "real" message, just spam.

And it's more than just an annoyance; all this extra e-mail can get expensive for an Internet service provider. According to Mueller, they had to "push forward a scheduled upgrade to our mail server, and do it basically on an emergency basis because our old one was falling down under the weight of all the spam."

v-grab But spam isn't limited to e-mail.

Jack Mingo is a writer who wound up in the middle of an ugly spam controversy on a part of the Internet called Usenet, which lets people with common interests share their thoughts online.

"I used to go into the Co-Op in Berkeley," he says. "There would be a bulletin board where people could put up comments about the store. Then, other people would go in and add comments to their comments."

The trouble started when Mingo and others blew the whistle on an apparent spam scam: Usenet postings asking for money to represent would-be authors. "The agents who supposedly were doing all the work were never there. None of them by name, they were always in a meeting."

Mingo says the spammers reacted angrily to his whistle-blowing. But he got off easy compared to his online friend, Jayne Hitchcock.

Her case has become a textbook study of what malicious spammers can do. Hitchcock's name and phone number started showing up on risque messages all over the Internet.

v-grab An enraged Hitchcock has gone to court in New York, trying to shut down her tormentors.

And Mingo, who makes his living with words, is sorry to see what the reckless words of spammers are doing to the Usenet culture: "There are some groups where everything is spam, or almost everything is spam, and people have just left because there's nothing there but commercial messages for things that have nothing to do with the group."

Scott Hazen Mueller has also had his name attached to forged spam. Thousands of messages were sent out offering a free ounce of gold and giving his e-mail address. Says Mueller, "I got a few people who said, 'Well, this doesn't look like it would be real, but if it is, send me my gold.' I got a whole lot more people who said, 'Stop sending me this stuff.'"

And that seems to sum up the prevailing feeling about spam. While there might be a few nuggets in there, a lot of it looks like Fool's Gold.

posted 10/03/97

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The Gate
This is where we throw all the extra information and any odds and ends we think might be interesting for you.
Suzanne Shaw: So, what's being done about all this?

Stan Bunger: On the spam issue, no fewer than four bills have been introduced in Congress. The one favored by the anti-spam activists would ban unsolicited e-mail just the way unsolicited faxes are banned now.

Suzanne: And what about the kind of e-mail harassment you showed in connection with those writers?

Stan: For now, it's still a detective game; it's difficult to track down the person who did it and prove they did it. But more and more victims are filing civil lawsuits in these cases.