Our writer looks at the origins and effectiveness of spam and what to do about it.
By Erik J. Heels
First published 10/2/1998; Law Practice Management magazine, “nothing.but.net” column; American Bar Association
It is hard to imaging a topic that people feel more passionately about than unsolicited e-mail. Legislation has even been drafted (see http://www.senate.gov/~murkowski/commercialemail/EMailAmendText.html) to combat it. Proponents point to the prevalence of direct mail in the postal system and claim First Amendment rights. Opponents claim that time and money is being spent and wasted. But I will leave the debates about the rightness or wrongness of spam to others. In the same spirit that I conduct (with my partner Rick Klau) periodic reviews of law firm Web site (http://www.redstreet.com/reviews/), I decided to do the (previously) unthinkable: read the spam and analyze it. And just as you may not want to know what goes into the luncheon meat Spam, you might get a little squeamish seeing what’s in this spam. So here you have it. My first annual state of the spam column.
I get bombarded with unsolicited e-mail – or “spam.” But I don’t really notice it anymore, because I have developed a series of e-mail filters to automatically dispose of most of it. When you think about it, this anti-spam procedure I have developed is remarkably similar to how I process each day’s postal mail. I open the mail right next to the kitchen trash can, quickly decided what is worth keeping and what is not. My goal is to throw out as much as possible before filing the rest in my office (bills, magazines, credit card offers, etc.). Some of the unsolicited postal mail ends up getting read and acted on. But not much.
Likewise with spam. My filters handle most of it. I rarely read any of it. The first thing I did was to see how long it took for me to accumulate 100 pieces of spam. I figure that analyzing 100 pieces would give me a pretty good idea about the state of spam today. Plus it makes doing the percentage calculations a lot easier!
It took only 18 days for me to accumulate 100 pieces of unsolicited e-mail. That’s about 5.6 pieces of spam per day.
I evaluated the spam on three categories. Presentation (what does it look like as it arrives in your inbox), content (what does it say), and experience (how did I feel about it).
Of the 100 pieces of spam I received:
68 were unique;
32 were duplicates;
22 used subject lines that were SHOUTING (i.e. in ALL CAPS);
8 were from individual e-mail addresses;
7 had no subject at all;
5 were from “*Bull*sEye*,” which clearly sounds like targeted direct e-mail (Bull’s Eye, target, get it?);
3 were from clearly bogus addresses (“Hi,” “News,” and “Amazon”);
2 had no “From” address at all; and
1 took advantage of the “X-Priority” header to raise the priority of the message.
And the average message size was about 3.5 K.
So what do I conclude from all of the above? Well, the first thing I conclude is that spam is not clogging my inbox, nor is it costing me anything other than perhaps marginal wear and tear on my hard disk. Next, that spam looks a lot less professional than direct postal mail. When was the last time you got a piece of postal mail from a bogus return address that used ALL CAPS THROUGHOUT. I admit it. I like the funky clever postcards that I get from various hardware and software vendors. I read a few, I respond to a few. But only 8 pieces of the 100 (those with what appeared to be legitimate return e-mail addresses) struck me as professional. But so as not to judge a book by its cover (at least not entirely), I trudged on and read the contents of each message.
I also wanted to measure how many times certain words were used. So I sorted all 100 messages and counted up what I found. In the 100 pieces of spam, there were:
551 instances of “$;”
134 instances of “FREE;”
85 instances of “money;”
66 references to “Yahoo;”
65 toll-free phone numbers;
63 “$” symbols in a row at one point (no kidding!);
34 instances of “SECRET;”
24 references to stock trading symbols;
16 references to adult-oriented material;
7 instances of “SCAM;”
4 instances of “spam;” and
1 longest word (The.sender.of.this.untracable.email.used.MAILGOD.by. InfoAge.Marketing.International.)
From this, I conclude that the following sentence makes the perfect opening for a piece of spam: “Learn the secret of Yahoo and other publicly traded companies such as [insert stock symbols here] to make $$$MONEY$$$ in the no-spam no-scam world of placing banner ads on your site for our adult Web sites!” Or something like that.
But look carefully at the above stats in more detail. There were, on average, 1.13 URLs per slice of spam. Not bad. I always counsel law firms to include their URL in their e-mail signature files so that folks can learn about their Web sites. So the spammers have passed Marketing 101. But then note that only 65 chose to include toll-free phone numbers. Not good. If you’re going to spam folks, please make it easy (and toll-free) for us to get in touch with you. Toll-free phone numbers must be covered in Marketing 201.
Each message did have a clearly identifiable offer. The 100 pieces of spam offered a variety of products and services, which can be roughly categorized as follows:
23 multilevel marketing, pyramid investment schemes, and home-based businesses;
17 Web site marketing services (including banner ads, clipart, e-commerce and the like);
12 e-mail marketing products and services;
8 pills (weight loss products, pheromones, vitamins, and herbal remedies);
8 phone and Internet products and services (long distance, calling cards, software, routers);
5 loans, travel, and real estate services;
3 misc. products (international driver’s license, all-purpose lubricant, Polish foods);
2 dating services;
2 legal products and services;
1 gambling; and
15 had removal info, but only 7 of those told me which e-mail address they used to contact me.
5 had “Title III” compliance info (regarding “compliance” with proposed legislation; again see http://www.senate.gov/~murkowski/commercialemail/EMailAmendText.html), but only 2 actually complied with Title III (the other 3 didn’t indicated which e-mail address they used to contact me).
4 used formatted text (which is never a good idea, since all recipients will not be able to read it).
What struck me about the above breakdown of products and services is that it looks very little like the offers that I receive via postal mail. Almost daily I get a credit card solicitation or a solicitation from a vendor that I’ve heard of. But I received no credit card solicitations via e-mail, and I had heard of none of the vendors. Furthermore, I question the legitimacy of the 23 that involved multilevel marketing and the like. To the rest I will give the benefit of the doubt. But even if the remaining 77 are legitimate, they are poorly targeted. Note that only 2 related to the legal industry!
After reading all of the spam, I found myself reacting more positively (or less negatively) to those slices that 1) identified the sender, 2) provided removal info (including telling me which e-mail address they used), 3) provided Title III compliance info, and 4) were well written. Then if they happened to offer a product I was interested in, all the better.
Let’s face it. If credit card companies never sent you offers for lower-rate cards, you’d never know about them. Without direct mail, L.L. Bean would not be a household word, and there wouldn’t be Gevalia coffee makers in every kitchen countertop in America. According to the Direct Marketing Association (http://www.the-dma.org/), the industry standard return rate on credit card direct mail is about 1.0%. And on bill stuffers (you know those ads for vacuum cleaner that come with your Sears bill), the average is 0.5%.
So if direct e-mail is anything like direct postal mail, I’d expect to be interested in about one of the pieces of spam that received. In fact there was one piece of the 100 that caught my eye.
I don’t like spam, but I do like Polish sausage. And one of the e-mail messages that contained Title III removal info was one from a Polish sausage vendor (http://www.polana.com/). I didn’t’ buy the sausage, but I did bookmark the site. Furthermore, I am telling all 25,000 of you about it, which suggests that about 250 of you may also bookmark it.
So why am I “rewarding” a spammer (of sausage, oddly enough) with free press? Well, perhaps if we can’t eliminate spam, we can encourage the spammers to clean up their act and deliver better spam.
Dealing With It
So where did all of the spam come from? More particularly, where did they get my e-mail address? My situation may be slightly different from yours, but there are still lessons to be learned.
40 of the messages came addressed to my public e-mail addresses that have appeared on the Web, including the e-mail address I used for this column. The spammers get the addresses by surfing the Web for pages with e-mail addresses on them. Perhaps the NLJ 250 firm of Powell, Goldstein, Frazer & Murphy (http://www.pgfm.com/) is on to something. No attorney e-mail addresses appear on their site, but you can send them e-mail via forms. I suspect more firms will adopt this approach in the future to minimize incoming spam.
38 of the messages came addressed to bogus e-mail addresses (but for domains that are registered to me). Another source of e-mail addresses for the spammers was Usenet and chat room postings. I have the misfortune of owning a domain name (heels-dot-com) that is frequently posted by others as what they believe to be bogus e-mail addresses. For example, the addresses hi-at-heels-dot-com and foot-at-heels-dot-com can be found in this manner. Spammers collect e-mail messages from Usenet, and since all e-mail to heels-dot-com goes to me, I get all of the spam. Fortunately, I can set up e-mail filters to send all mail sent to hi-at-heels-dot-com to the trash (which I do).
21 of the messages came addressed to my unpublished POP e-mail address (which I have no idea how they got), and 1 was to an e-mail address that I use only for domain name filings with the InterNIC.
The good news is that 68% of the spam was identified as spam by my e-mail filters. And my other filters (which filter out GOOD e-mail into separate inboxes) help weed through the rest. The result is that unfiltered e-mail in my inbox is usually about 90% spam. So it’s as easy for me to weed through spam as it is the daily mail. (See the March 1998 nothing.but.net at http://www.abanet.org/lpm/magazine/nbn/nbn982.html for a detailed description of how to filter away spam.)
Do I think spam is an issue? Yes. Do I think it is an issue worthy of legislation? Not yet. The obvious problem with spam is that the per-piece mailing cost is so low that the senders don’t care whether or not their e-mail is targeted or not. If we could somehow raise the cost of e-mail addresses (or of spam delivery), the quality of spam would certainly improved. Until then, I can only hope that the industry will regulate itself and clean up its act. Because, frankly, I’d like to get a credit card offer from a bank I’ve heard of via e-mail. I like e-mail, and I like saving money. But I don’t like being annoyed it. I also like Polish sausage.