Vigilante against spam:
April 16, 2001 4:02 PM   Subscribe

Vigilante against spam: "A self-appointed global army has taken on the mass Internet mailings that annoy users and crash systems. It is a demanding and risky hobby."
posted by paladin (11 comments total)
This was a pretty good article. I am one of the grunts in that self-appointed army. I fight spam because I'm sick and tired of getting it. I have email addresses that have been used around the internet for so long (some as far back as 1989) that they are on every spamers list and CD available. I get probably 30-40 spams per day, although I've not counted recently. Sometimes it's as high as 75-100.

Of course, it's a ridculously thankless job, aisde from a few canned reponses from MSN, Hotmail and Yahoo. The Sisyphean nature of the job is illustrated by the fact that no matter how hard I (we) try, the number of spams only increase every year. I suppose I do it for the few big victories (see note at bottom) and knowing that by not doing it, I'm contributing to the problem.

If we would all report spam, it would have two effects:

1) Spammers would be shut down before they could get out even 1/10th of their list. The websites they advertise would be shut down before clueless newbies could visit them. They would lose ISP account after ISP account. Eventually, they would realize what a huge waste of time it is.


2) A deluge of mail hundreds or thousands of times larger than what they get today would perhaps convince sloppy, lazy and/or apathetic system administrators everywhere to upgrade their systems, fix their mail relays, and put into place measures to detect when spam is being sent from/through their domains.

Hey, I can dream, can't I?? If anyone is interested in fighting back, check out these resources or drop me a line.

Join CAUCE!!
SPAM-L FAQ's Stop spam info page
Network abuse clearinghouse

Spam-fighting tools:
Sam Spade
UXN Spam Combat tools

Meta-blackhole systems with interesting info:
Open Relay Behaviour-modification System
Mail abuse prevention system

Note: I once got a marketing guy fired from his company because his idea of "targeted user emails" was spam sent out to every address listed on a CD that he bought for $29.95... Idiot...
At best, the span of time between when I get/report the spam and the website advertised gets nuked for AUP violations is approximately 2.5 minutes. That's the power of spam fighting...

posted by fooljay at 7:02 PM on April 16, 2001

Spam fighters unite! I've just this minute finished feeding SpamCop my morning spam. I've have some really good luck in reducing my spam, now down to perhaps three a day. Part of it comes from switching email addresses annually, and from using a customized email address for each registration (,, etc.) since it all forwards to one account anyway. That way I can filter for recipient, too, once an address is filched for the big lists.

Also, as I mentioned here in the past, I've got a bunch of automatic mail filters set up that filter mail based on content. Because most spam comes with predictable pitches, claims and rhetoric, it's easy to filter for. I catch most of it.

I have noticed that the trend in spam lately is more upscale. I get more pitches for stocks (many of them highly unethical, if not explicitly illegal), mortgages and even classic fraud, particularly the one that used to come in letter form, always from a foreigner who claims that due to national politics and strife he has money in limbo that he cannot get on his own, but would I, Kind Sir, give him my bank account numbers so he can transfer all the money into my account for safekeeping. That one I reported to the FBI.

Regarding FoolJay's story, it seems to me also that as the Internet is losing its novelty, that we really are approaching a plateau where the number of clueless adult Internet users remains constant (those people who never learn), leaving us pretty much finished with the bulk of people who at first glance thought a CD with 12 million email addresses was a good idea get, most of those people now burned and/or educated and not likely to make that mistake again.

In 1996 I was pitching Internet services to a shoe company. Their marketing guy was a vigorous go-getter who felt restrained by the more conservative owner of the company who refused to build even a public relations web site but wondered if we couldn't send out a mass emailing, similar to what they already did with their catalogs. "They're all good addresses," he swore. I took me weeks to convince him that there was no way to vet those 12 million email addresses to *prove* that those people had opted-in and if he didn't want to alienate his target market (assuming that a goodly number of those addresses were women in comfortable flats sitting in offices at major companies), he'd leave well enough alone. That disk was all spam-gathered addresses, I am still sure.
posted by Mo Nickels at 12:45 AM on April 17, 2001

PS: In the second-to-last paragraph I am speaking of a plateau of stupid Anglo users. I already receive Chinese and Korean spam and it's growing. As the rest of the world reaches our Internet usage levels, those old email lists will be recycled and each language group will reach its own cultural comfort level with spam, with first-comer Anglos suffering as a consequence.
posted by Mo Nickels at 12:49 AM on April 17, 2001

And those Asian-language spams are bulky, too. Either it's the pictograms or it's a cultural need to include attached GIFs. Arrgh.

I use spamcop, as well, and I wonder if it would be more effective to hit it several times a day instead of (more commonly for me) once every couple. Scratch that, I'm sure of it. I simply don't use that e-mail address anymore except for some longstanding (and whitelisted) mailing lists, but it gets 10+ spams daily. I guess I should feel lucky.

AOL is doing better. I have two AOL accounts that are 100% spam-free after months. But my new AT&T Worldnet account began receiving spam after three days, and about 1 daily after that.
posted by dhartung at 1:13 AM on April 17, 2001

from the linked article:

> The second is newsgroup spam, or mass postings sent to
> Internet discussion groups on the popular Usenet, an
> informal electronic network popular among millions of
> users where spam accounts for about 80% of all postings.

This doesn't help the newsspool admins, of course, but from the Usenet user's point of view the vast majority of spam postings go to pr0n newsgroups. The groups I've been reading lately (e.g. rec.arts.books,, have been quite respectably spam-free. Sleaze vendors go where the sleaze consumers are.
posted by jfuller at 7:31 AM on April 17, 2001

Wow, someone still uses newsgroups?! I gave them up back around 1996 because they got ridiculous. Glad to know they're still useful to someone. Perhaps with all of the focus being on the web, newsgroups have returned to their roots. Perhaps I'll check them out.

As far as the frequency of spam reporting goes, the faster you can report it, the better. Often times this will result in spammer's dropboxes and websites being nuked before anyone can look at them, rendering the spam itself useless. Creating this sort of overhead makes spamming less cost/time effective for the spammer. I don't even bother reporting day-old spam because 99% of the time, some other advocate has already got them taken down.

As far as trends, what I'm starting to see is a greater utilization of offline resources. Since dropboxes and websites are so easy to nuke, people are using P.O. boxes and phone numbers. These are things I don't even have the know-how to track down and eliminate. Overall this is a good thing because it takes far more effort on the mark's part than simply replying or clicking a link. This makes spam much less effective and hopefully less attractive.

I haven't used SpamCop, but will check it out.
posted by fooljay at 11:50 AM on April 17, 2001

I'm very vigilant about opting out of mailing lists, and if I'm going to register for something that I don't care that much about, I use one of a couple spam catcher email addresses. Lately, however, I've been receiving spam at my primary address with a note on the bottom that says something like:

This is a legitimate mailing. You are receiving this email because you signed up for it. You will not need to report this email because you asked for it. You are getting sleepy... very sleepy...

But seriously, I get email that I know darn well I didn't opt-in to with these admonishments that I am forgetful at the end, which just pisses me off even more.

I mainly use a combination of filters, spam catcher addresses, and a lovely "Report Junk Mail" feature on the web-based version of my ISP email address which keeps my spam count relatively low. I like this Spamcop link, though, thank you.
posted by jennyb at 12:35 PM on April 17, 2001

I'll point out that you can use Spamcop both interactively (cut and paste full-header e-mail) or as a filter. I use it to filter one very spam-ridden account, forwarding only whitelist stuff to my "real" address; and cut-and-paste anything else that comes to me through my other boxes.

It's neat because you can buy bandwidth ("fuel") well in advance ... I purchased a 25Mb block and it's lasted me two years (only one of them in filter mode, though).

Warning, though, jennyb: careful who you opt out with. I don't trust ANYBODY who opts me in without permission. They don't deserve confirmation that I'm an active address; there's no guarantee they won't sleazily sell that info to another spammer.
posted by dhartung at 12:55 PM on April 17, 2001

Yes, dhartung, some people use the opt-out as a confirmation that there actually is someone behind the email, and that the person has gone through the entire message to the end, where the opt-out link is. It may, in fact, put you at the top of the list of people to spam.
posted by paladin at 1:21 PM on April 17, 2001

Uhhh, not to make anyone paranoid or anything, but depending on what mail reader you're using, they may already know not only that your address is good and you read the mail, but also what your IP address is.

I'm finding that many spams have the uniquely identifying 1x1 pixels (I will NOT call them WebBugs. The web already has enough of those...). What's worse, I'm finding that many emails from "legitimate" sources contain them as well. Yahoo news alerts, I believe was the latest one I found...

I usually look at (and edit) my mail on the server via EMACS before downloading it with Outlook or Eudora. That way I control them...

Jennyb, you may want to check this out as well as a means of knowing where your email is given out from. If I were signing up for Paypal, for instance, I would sign up as USER+paypal@DOMAIN.COM which would be delivered to USER@DOMAIN.COM. If you look in the headers of spam and see the plussed email address, you know exactly who to go back to for vengence. Of course, using unique emails are even better, e.g. forwarding to your main email...
posted by fooljay at 3:49 PM on April 17, 2001

Here's one of those damn web bugs I talked about from Yahoo alerts:

<img alt="" width="1" height="1" src="">

So what happens here is that my browser would load the "image" which is actually a program. Parameters to that program are assuredly some personally identifying information (i.e. email address) as well as something uniquely identifying the email it's contained in.

From this they can 1) see when and how often I look at the email, 2) map my email to my IP address. With this infomation, they can "better target" their advertisement in both email and on their website, based on my usage patterns on their site.

You know what? I don't want to be followed on the web. I don't want to be targeted. I don't want "personalized information" attached to uniquely identifying information such as my email. IP address (w/ cookies) is barely tolerable, but provides enough benefit to pass muster. Tying my email address together with my web surfing is just BEGGING for spam...
posted by fooljay at 3:57 PM on April 18, 2001

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