Something worse than spam

Next-generation junk e-mail represents a grave attack on a victim's personal reputation

Next-generation junk e-mail represents a grave attack on a victim's personal reputation

I normally try not to return too soon to topics that I have covered, even when the response suggests that it is something about which people feel strongly. This is certainly the case with spam, which I discussed a couple of weeks ago: I have had more reader feedback than for any other topic in recent years. But that is not why I am writing yet again about the subject.

This column was born when I noticed that a dozen or so e-mails had been returned to my inbox by servers around the world, with the automated message that for various reasons they had not reached their intended recipients. So far, so boring, except for the fact that I had not sent any of these e-mails and that all of them were spam - most were pushing pornographic wares of one kind or another.

Spammers, it seems, have become even more devious in their evasion techniques - and even more cynical. Not content with trying to avoid detection themselves - to dodge the justified ire of their victims and the retribution of their often unwilling allies, the ISPs - this latest twist in the sad story of spam represents a double insult.

For now it is spammees, people whose e-mail addresses have fallen irrevocably on to spam target lists, that are being portrayed as the spammers. Moreover, these lists tend to mate incestuously among themselves to ensure that once on a list you soon find yourself on every list.

The people who thought of this wheeze must have been pretty pleased with themselves. Not only do they throw naive recipients of spam off the trail, but they also deflect attention on to hapless recipients of other spam.

It can only be a matter of time before I receive my first irate e-mail telling me what to do with the spam that I am supposed to have sent. Multiply my fate a million times and you will have a cacophony of misdirected e-mails shooting across the Net as spammee seeks out spammer, only to hit a fellow sufferer.

Moreover, it is likely that my e-mail address will be added to the various types of blocking software that I described in my earlier columns about spam. There I will be joined by thousands, perhaps millions, of other innocent e-mail addresses. This has the regrettable effect of making such blocking lists harder to run, harder to update and proportionately less useful as the ratio of real to apparent spammers decreases.

So, the reason I have returned to spam this week is to warn. For if you have ever been sent spam - even if you block most of it - it seems inevitable that at some point your e-mail address will be used for one of these next-generation spams that will bring you lots of "Returned mail: user unknown". If you are unlucky, they may even earn you abusive e-mail messages from annoyed recipients.

Ironically, these will probably pass through your spam filter, for they are not spam and they do not come from one of the blacklisted addresses. So an annoying side-effect of this escalation is that you will probably get more unsolicited e-mail than you did before, even with the best spam filters in place.

Against this dismal prospect, I see one ray of hope. Our salvation could be that this time the spammers have gone too far. Until now, most of us could accept the nuisance of spam as something you lived with. To be sure, we wasted valuable time deleting it from our inboxes, or installing anti-spam software, but there was no serious damage done.

No longer. With this latest twist, I find myself not only a spammer in the eyes of thousands of unknown - or even known - recipients, but also as somebody who is purveying quack remedies, get-rich-quick pyramid schemes and deeply offensive pornography. This kind of identity theft represents a serious attack on the victim's personal reputation.

Against this background, and assuming that this ploy becomes widespread, as seems likely, it may be possible to pass anti-spam legislation with some serious teeth. For example, one option would be to pass laws that make those employing this new approach to promote their services or products liable - and not just the nominal spammer, who is usually untraceable.

This would clearly be excessive for ordinary spam. But I suspect that once enough people - particularly children, whose e-mail addresses will also be used - have been made out to be peddlers of the kind of goods typically on offer in these messages, there will be sufficient outrage among the public to encourage even the most lax of governments to enact legislation that will offer serious disincentives to what can only be described as something even worse than spam.
This was last published in October 2002

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