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Spam Attack

Spam… A word-associational psychologist would be disappointed at how predictable the results of tossing this word into a session aimed at unearthing complex emotions are. There are no complex emotions when it comes to spam. Spam evokes pure and undiluted annoyance, irritation and (depending on the quantity and frequency) sometimes even rage. Spam is one word that is guaranteed to make every email user cringe.

Spam… A word-associational psychologist would be disappointed at how predictable the results of tossing this word into a session aimed at unearthing complex emotions are. There are no complex emotions when it comes to spam. Spam evokes pure and undiluted annoyance, irritation and (depending on the quantity and frequency) sometimes even rage.

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Spam is one word that is guaranteed to make every email user cringe.

If promises of a new credit card, an instantly better sex life or a ‘free’ iPod don’t get you whooping for joy then you’re amongst most Internet users who have become wise to the fact that spam and scam are practically synonymous.

According to the latest Pew Internet Project on spam, although the volume of junk mail is growing in Internet users’ e-mail accounts, people are correspondingly less bothered by it. People are reportedly more savvy about blocking their spam — 71% of users surveyed reported using a filter.

I came across the Pew report at a particularly interesting time — for the last three days, my inbox at work has been flooded with spam from one particular email address, and no matter how many times I block the originator, the e-mails keep getting through. At first, I wasn’t particularly bothered by the emails, thinking that if I kept blocking them they would have to go away. Not quite the case it seems.

Internet users are getting more savvy, but lets not forget these users include spam senders as well. In my particular case, since this unfairly targeted spam siege has originated in the context of the feedback forms that FastCompany.com offers in relation to its resource columns, it is aptly slugged “comment spam.” This according to our new Web Developer Tom Achtemichuk, who has helpfully been trying to tackle the problem.

States Tom in a laudable effort to explain things as simply as possible: “A script searches the web for forms to fill out, and when it finds one it automatically fills it out with a bunch of links pointing to their w\Web site. The way that Google ranks a page is by counting how many popular pages link to it. By posting this comment full of links back to their own site, the spammer is hoping that their Google PageRank will increase and that when someone Googles for “credit cards” their page will be in the top few results. The spammer’s page is full of ads and keywords — they’re probably making thousands a month in ad revenue from people following links and Google searches to their page.

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Unfortunately none of the outgoing e-mail on the server is filtered for spam, so once they’ve figured out how to exploit one of these forms, they can send whatever e-mail they want. The only way to stop it is making sure that every script on the server that sends mail is written properly and secured. There are over 100 of them so it’s no small feat.”

No small feat is right. Seventy junked e-mails later I log back onto my account with bated breath. Emptiness. It appears Tom may have nipped the problem in the bud. For now.

An inevitability: as more and more segments of our lives become digitized, spam will metastasize to encroach upon other, currently spam-free, areas of communication. Spam in the form of text messages is still relatively uncommon, but it’s out there and as cell phone markets around the world continue to expand, mobile phones are likely to become significant platforms for spammers and unscrupulous advertisers.

With, at least initially, less developed filters to deal with the electronic junk mail that comes through one’s cell phone, spam is likely to continue to spread — in a new, mutated form.

Apart from cell phones, what do you think the next platform for spam will be? Do you think the worries about junk mail through mobile phones are unfounded? Will efforts to combat spam in this form be successful?