The in-box intruders

What's behind the recent rise in 'spam,' those e-mail come-ons that clog your computer, and what you can do about it.

Over the past few months, Bob Desrochers hasn't done any more online shopping than usual or sent extra e-mails. But during that time, the bed-and-breakfast owner in Canterbury, Conn., has received six times the usual amount of junk mail in his e-mail in-box.

The ads are rarely from respectable retailers. Some start with ludicrous questions: "Want to go to Hawaii for free?" Others promise dubious services: "Get out of debt - instantly!"

The majority, he says, promote links to pornographic sites - with come-ons that seem to grow more explicit by the week.

Mr. Desrochers and his wife, Jackie, say they now delete about 30 messages a day.

The growing bombardment of Americans' e-mail in-boxes with unsolicited advertisements - widely known as "spam" - is eliciting frustration from millions of computer users like the Desrochers, who, at work or at home, often spend at least 10 minutes a day sorting through and deleting the unwanted messages.

"The consensus among people who measure this sort of thing is that there's been a 10 to 30 percent increase in the amount of spam over the past six months," says John Mozena, vice president of the Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial E-mail.

Observers credit the uptick to a range of factors. Among them: marketers' efforts to exploit consumer wariness of postal mail in the wake of the anthrax scare, and an economic downturn that has heightened the allure of easy sales jobs in the low-overhead world of online services.

Other experts say the spam spike is another byproduct of the Internet's Wild West environment, where few regulations restrain digital hucksters from invading personal privacy to make their pitch.

Consumer advocates complain that regulators can't keep pace with the volume of digital offers, shrouded in anonymity and cast as protected free speech. Indeed, officials have shown little vigilance in prosecuting even the most notorious offenders. But some advocates point to 1991 legislation aimed at "junk faxes" as a precedent for a major crackdown.

How spamming works

Spam has existed since the dawn of the Internet, but first began circulating at large levels around 1997, when the broader public started going online, experts say.

Now, spamming is a major industry. Technology has been the primary catalyst. Current computer programs now formulate millions of permutations of e-mail addresses from plausible and even nonsensical name and number combinations. (For example: pauln@hotmail.com, or ncp135@yahoo.com.)

Deeper-digging tools, called "bots," troll the Web for e-mail addresses of any sort, from a journalist's address placed at the end of a story, to a teenager's address posted on a chat room's "who's here" list.

Marketers cull the results and create a catalog with as many as 10 million addresses. The lists are stored on compact disc and cost about $50. They are often sold to dozens or hundreds of different spammers who download them onto a computer, which sprays out the spam.

Ultimately, the ad will bounce back from millions of nonexistent or defunct mailboxes. A huge majority of those who receive the message will simply delete it. Only a tiny fraction will act on the offer.

But for most spammers, there is little reason to narrow their audience. "Why bother with demographics? It doesn't cost them any more to send 10 or 10,000 [e-mails]," says Mozena.

The proliferation of junk e-mail carries costs beyond consumer annoyance. And it has global implications. Most observers estimate spam equals 10 percent of all e-mail worldwide. A study by the European Union estimated that the cost of handling all that spam is $8 billion. Burdened by the swelling currents of junk mail, Internet service providers (ISPs) incur heavy expenses beefing up their networks. That cost trickles down to consumers. The final cost to ISP end-users: between $2 and $3 of a monthly bill, according to a 1998 report by the state of Washington.

The bulk-mail boom not only pinches Americans' pocketbooks, but also their productivity in the workplace, where many people check and send the majority of their e-mail.

As the head of information technology for CIO Magazine in Framingham, Mass., David Woodall has witnessed a huge rise in spam sent to his staff over the past few months. The volume of ads has risen to the point where, Mr. Woodall says, managers at many firms are beginning to reevaluate the effect on employees.

"Four years ago, my first suggestion was use your delete key," says Woodall. "Now, people are saying they feel harassed by it. It's gone from a technical issue to a human-resources issue."

The threat of widespread spam disruption has prompted legislators to take action. Currently 18 states have antispamming laws on the books. Most of the laws require companies to identify the message as an ad and give people ways to remove themselves from the list of recipients.

The European Union has gone a step further, proposing that companies first establish a relationship with a customer and then ask permission before sending any message at all.

Most antispamming advocates call for similar legislation from Congress, because a majority of spam is sent across state borders and is not subject to state law.

Yet efforts at passing federal restrictions have foundered in the face of the First Amendment. Many marketers argue that any limitation on their ability to send out an advertisement infringes on free speech. The Direct Marketing Association, for one, claims that an opt-in restriction punishes legitimate businesses that can't afford to advertise through other means.

Others point to the difficulty of defining spam. Does, for example, unsolicited bulk e-mail from a charity qualify?

For many, however, speech is a secondary issue. "This is a question of property, not content," says Tom Geller, executive director of the SpamCon Foundation, a consumer-advocacy group in San Francisco. He views spam as a form of trespassing.

"The First Amendment does not allow someone to tie a message to a brick and throw it through my window," he says.

Precedents for a crackdown

Congress has a history of restricting invasive marketing. Telemarketers, for example, are prohibited from calling households before 8 a.m. and after 9 p.m. And consumers are able to prevent a company from calling them more than once a year by directing the telemarketer to place their names on the company's do-not-call list.

The Federal Trade Commission has proposed the creation of a federal do-not-call list, which would fine violators up to $11,000. Half of the states currently offer similar lists for in-state calls. Such developments, observers say, may lead to the creation of do-not-spam lists.

In addition, Mr. Geller points to a federal statute that bans "junk faxes" as a precedent for effective spam legislation. The measure, which levies a $500 fine on offenders, has withstood constitutional challenges.

In fact, many mainstream retailers support such antispam efforts. The flood of spam, they say, has drowned out targeted ads from legitimate businesses. Many consumers are now prone to automatically delete commercial messages, regardless of the source.

The trend poses a serious threat to the already tenuous world of Internet retail.

"Spam has certainly hurt serious direct marketing by making it harder for customers to sort the wheat from the chaff," says John Rizzi, president of e-Dialog, a direct e-mail marketing firm in Framingham, Mass., which represents companies like Ann Taylor and Charles Schwab. "Because of clutter in our e-mail boxes, the first thing we're conditioned to do right now is aggressively delete."

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