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If you think I owe you some money, I'm sorry. "Congratulations, You Won $30 Free Today At The Internet's Best; Most Trusted On-Line Casino!" announced the spam from "Ted Rall" which hit in-boxes from Alabama to Zambia on May 19.
"To Collect Your $30 Cash Click Here!" "Ted Rall" urged. I soon received a few hundred emails in response, ranging from a polite "Please remove me from your list" to "Your hyperlink doesn't work; please mail my $30 to the following address" to unprintable insults concerning my sexual habits and orientation.
I didn't send that spam, but my email address did. How could such a thing happen?
"Anyone can send out an email using anyone else's email as a return address," says Simson Garfinkel, a leading Internet privacy expert and author of Database Nation. "Hold on, I'll send you an email from yourself in a few minutes." And he did.
The "You won $30" spam wasn't my first misadventure involving online identity theft. In 1999 a man angered by one of my essays responded with an attempt at email career sabotage. Under the name "Ted Rall" he fired off at least 70 obnoxious messages to my editors and peers. He ignored a series of cease-and-desist letters, forcing me to file a lawsuit to get him to stop impersonating me. The case has yet to culminate in a court date. Recently, the same man joined in a Web-based discussion group about my latest book, pretending to be a New York City firefighter and trying to create the impression that the FDNY was boycotting the book.
Anyone with an email account knows that the Internet is out of control. I receive more than 100 spams a day. In just the past 20 minutes, while I've been working on this essay, email@example.com let me know that each of their products is "chocked full of candle fruit that looks and smells like fresh tangerines!" and Trifecta01.firstname.lastname@example.org informed me that I was receiving their "message as an opt-in subscriber to Just For You Network." (Trust me: I never "opt in.") And email@example.com enthusiastically made me an offer: "We collect Child Support AND OUR SERVICES COST YOU NOTHING!!!"
Does the real Donna87 know she's in the collections business?
A survey of more than 1,200 email users by Executive Summary Consulting, Inc. and Quris found that spam makes up the largest share of most users incoming email. Among home users, unwanted email marketing messages comprised 37 percent of users received email -- more than personal correspondence (26 percent) or permission-based mailings (24 percent). Among those who use email both at work and at home, spam exceeds job-related mail by 3 percent, filling up 28 percent of the average in-box.
Granted, as blights go, spam doesn't rank up there with herpes, botox or Donald Rumsfeld. "One mouse click keeps me from being added or removes me from email lists," asserts Information Technology Association of America spokesman Harris N. Miller.
But those who say that clicking "delete" 100 times a day is no big deal (God help you if you're getting back from two weeks vacation and have to deal with thousands of spams) have obviously never checked their email on a crappy dial-up modem, much less a slow, expensive connection at an overseas cybercafe. Most Internet service providers offer programs to block email emanating from particular accounts, but spammers usually create one-off accounts for each batch they send, neatly circumventing the blocking programs.
You simply can't stop spam. The classic suggestion -- create a new email account from which you never post to the Web or Usenet -- no longer works. A new account I set up last week filled with spam before it was ever used, a mere 45 minutes after it was created.
The same goes for identity theft. As I learned by investing three years and tens of thousands of dollars in attorneys fees, filing a lawsuit won't bring the instantaneous solution such an insidious and time-consuming crime calls for.
Fortunately, both the U.S. Congress and the European Union are currently considering legislation to curb the anarchic excesses of cyberspace. Both the European and American bills would require companies to get your explicit permission before they could send you product information. And Sen. Conrad Burns' (R-MT) bipartisan Online Personal Privacy Act slams violators with more concrete penalties; spammers who use "deceptive subject lines" and do not respond to consumers requests to be removed from their lists would face Federal Trade Commission fines of up to $30 per email to a maximum penalty of $1.5 million.
Neither proposal addresses the growing problem of identity theft. To prevent the creation of accounts by criminals, banks require their customers to provide detailed proof of identity. Internet service providers should do the same before opening email accounts. Still, allowing consumers to control access to their in-boxes is a good start toward taming online lunacy.
Regretably, an arcane alliance of sleazy mass marketers and misguided civil libertarians such as Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) are stalling long-overdue Internet reform in Washington and Brussels, saying that banning spam would infringe on freedom of expression.
I'm a First Amendment purist. But the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that commercial speech is different from free speech in general, especially when there is a "governmental interest" in regulating it. Thus a ban on unwanted solicitations for Internet porn sites doesn't prevent, say, an op-ed writer from sending emails to editors asking them to buy his weekly column.
The Internet marketers lobby likes to claim that it's unfair to treat spammers differently from their peers who use phones and bulk mail to spread the word about goods and services you never knew you needed. But spam is different -- it's free. The cost of phone calls and stamps inherently limits the volume of annoyance, though you'd hardly know that at dinnertime.
In any event, telemarketers need to be reined in as well. Common sense dictates that we should strive toward creating a more civilized society, not one that kowtows to the ruder whims of our most aggressive merchants.