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The Campaign to Stop Junk Email

Home | Site Info | Dealing With It | Prevention | Business Guide | Further Info

Understanding Junk Email

Further information about Junk Email and how it (doesn't) work.

On This Page

  • The Junk Email FAQ Frequently-Asked Questions and answers about junk email
  • How We Should Think About Junk Email Philosophies of (un)acceptability
  • How It's Done Know Your Enemy.
  • Methods of Address Collection
  • Auto-Mailers
  • Chain Letters and Ponzi (Pyramid) Schemes
  • Do-Not-Mail Lists and why they don't work
  • Big Net Companies and their Sometimes Unhelpful Attitudes
  • Other Resources Links to other anti-junk email sites and related materials

  • The Junk Email FAQ

    Frequently Asked Questions About Junk Email

    Q: What is junk email?
    A: Junk Email is unsolicited commercial electronic mail. In other words, it is when someone sends you an unwanted advertisement via email. Often, junk email is sent in bulk to a large number of addresses using an automated mailing program.

    Q: How is junk email different from spam?
    A: Junk Email is often mis-labeled as Spam. Spam is a name for a excessive multiple posting of a substantially identical message on Usenet. Spam often contains commercial advertising, but the definition is based on the number of postings, and not the content of the message. Because there are effective filtering and cancel mechanisms available on Usenet, it is becoming clear to advertisers that spamming is not an effective means of generating business. Unfortunately, many Net advertisers are now moving to junk email.

    Q: Why is this A Bad Thing?
    A: Junk email requires that the recipient (or victim) pays to receive the advertisement message, and the victim has no way to avoid doing so. Also, since many junk emailers use automated mailing programs, and sell their email address lists, the volume of junk email can quickly rise to unmanageable levels, clogging the victim's in-box and prevent access to legitimate email.

    Q: Who does this?
    A: The short answer is: rude people. Some may not realize that they are being rude; however, many do. The appeal to them is that junk email appears, at least on the surface, to be much cheaper than other advertising methods. Sending an email message appears virtually free to the sender, and a junk emailer can send email to 10,000 addresses as cheaply as one. Because of this, even a fraction of a percent positive response is a great return on investment. Of course, that is overlooking the fact that the other 9,999 people had to be irritated and materially inconvenienced by the junk email.

    Q: What if I want to find out about a product?
    A: You can certainly use Web search engines to find out about products advertised on the Web. You could also sign up for a specialized mailing list to be sent information about a particular product or topic, or use a mail-back email responder. There is no legitimate reason for someone to send you commercial email without your request or permission.

    Q: Is commercial email ever OK?
    A: Sure, if the recipient has knowingly requested the material. This could be through an auto-responder, or even just a personal exchange of email. Many businesses distribute information effectively on the Internet this way.

    Q: What about junk email that tells you to reply with a keyword in order to avoid getting further messages?
    A: That's not good enough. It just wastes more of our valuable time. Valid automated mailing lists require you to subscribe to them, for good reason: There are at more than 54,000 known electronic mailing lists--imagine the chaos if all mailing lists subscribed everyone on the Net automatically! Would you want to spend the time sending 54,000 replies?

    Q: What about putting those "I will proofread junk email for $XXX" contracts in your .sig file?
    A: Well, they may act as a deterrent, but they probably aren't legally binding, because you can't show that the junk emailer actually saw your notice (and, due to their address-collection software, they probably didn't). You could send a notification by certified mail (assuming you can get a valid snail-mail address), send a bill if you got junk emailed again, and then sue in your local small-claims court when they didn't pay. This relies on the concept of Notification and Offer, a common-law legal concept that you have to pay if you do something that costs someone else money, even if you didn't sign a contract before hand. The commonly-cited example is when you gas up your car: you are told how much you will have to pay (and you don't have to accept what is offered to you), but once you start filling the tank you're on the hook to pay up (that is, taking the action indicates your acceptance of the offer, which obliges you to pay). Junkbusters Spamoff uses this concept to fight junk email.

    Note however that I haven't yet heard from anyone who claims to have successfully collected money this way, but perhaps it is having the desired deterrent effect. If you have used this tactic successfully, I would love to hear about it (you can remain anonymous, if you like).

    I am not a lawyer, nor to I play one on the net. This isn't legal advice.

    How We Should Think About Junk Email

    Part of the reason that people think advertising via junk email is OK is because of a lack of understanding about the nature of the Net and email in general. If you misunderstand the way something actually works, you misunderstand how to use it, and its effects. The way people think about things determines whether they are considered acceptable.

    Like many things on the Net, it is sometimes helpful to look for similar situations In Real Life (IRL) for guidance, especially if you are trying to explain something to people (advertisers) who don't have a lot of net experience. To that end, there are three analogous situations IRL that we can use to model strategies to deal with Junk Email: The Telemarketing Model, the Snail-Mail Model, and the Fax Machine model.

    The Telemarketing Model is based on those annoying telemarketing calls you receive right around dinner time. In Real Life these are dealt with by hanging up the phone and returning to dinner, and also by legislation that regulates the telemarketing industry and provides for a "Do-Not-Call" list (see "Do-Not-Spam" lists, below. The $500 fine for calling after the recipient requests no further calls is a nice feature, as well. This model is not really applicable to Junk Email, because, even though it is irritating, the recipient does not pay for the sales pitch, the caller does.

    The Snail-Mail Model is based on bulk advertising rates provided by the US Postal Service. This can be a useful model to an extent, because the extremely inexpensive postal rates make even a 1% or 2% response rate economically feasible, just like the low cost of bulk emailing. But again, the recipient doesn't have to pay the postage, so this model is not really applicable to junk email. Unless you can imagine paying postage on all your junk mail!

    The Fax Machine Model is probably the real-world situation that closest resembles junk email. When someone sends an unsolicited commercial fax, it costs the recipient money in terms of fax-machine supplies, time, and the blocking of legitimate faxes. Bulk fax transmittals are certainly more expensive for the sender than bulk email, but nonetheless the practice of junk faxing was widespread enough that it was made illegal under Title 47 of the US Code. This has resulted in the popularity of the "FAX back" automated fax server, whereby a consumer wanting more information about a product calls a phone number and keys in their fax number, as well as code numbers for the documents desired, and these are then sent to the consumer's fax machine. This can also be accomplished in email, with autoresponders that send documents based on keywords in the "Subject:" field or body of a requesting message. This is a much more polite way to use email to market your product.

    There has even been some discussion that, under the definition of "fax machine" provided in the law, a modem-computer-printer setup might fall under the definition of fax machine, so junk email might also be illegal. This would require that a court of law use a strict and counterintuitive interpretation of the law, however, and most legal observers think this is unlikely to happen. Nonetheless, Russ Smith says he has settled with junk emailers out of court under this law and been paid real money.

    The Bogus Censorship Defense

    I have seen proponents of junk email try many times to use the free-speech argument to attempt to defend their abusive practices. This reasoning, to put it bluntly, is total crap.

    Other people's free-speech rights end where your property begins. Yes, everyone has a right to freely express their opinion, but that doesn't mean that people are free to picket in your living room. Nor can they legally make you print advertisements for them with your fax machine (see above). Just because you don't let marketers put up billboards in your bedroom doesn't mean you're advocating censorship! You pay for your computer hardware, your software, and your Internet email service, and it belongs to you. You have a right to control what occurs on your own equipment.

    Commercial advertising is also afforded less protection by the Supreme Court than other forms of speech. The courts have repeatedly upheld restrictions on advertising (for example, saying where ads can and can't be placed via zoning laws) that it doesn't apply to personal or political speech.

    Junk emailers are trying to get you to confuse your right to say what you want in public and on your own property with the issue of what they can say on your property. Claiming that people who don't want to be forced to pay for other people's advertising are advocating censorship is completely bogus, and, frankly, insulting to people who are genuinely concerned about real censorship issues.

    The Bogus Senate Bill "Legalizing" Junk Email

    Sometimes you will encounter text at the bottom of an email message that claims the mail is not spam because it conforms to a Federal bill. It may look something like this:

    **************************** NOTICE *****************************
    This email can not be considered spam as long as we include: Contact information
    & remove instructions. If you have somehow gotten on this list in error, or for
    any other reason would like to be removed, please reply with "remove" in the
    subject line of your message. This message is being sent to you in compliance
    with the current Federal legislation for commercial e-mail (H.R.4176 - SECTION
    101 Paragraph (e)(1)(A)) AND Bill s.1618 TITLE III passed by the 105th U.S. Congress

    This notice isn't worth a load of steaming dingo kidneys. As of this writing, there is no Federal commercial email law. Anyone who ever watched Schoolhouse Rock knows that bills are not laws, and have no legal force. Often (as in this case) the bills cited in these spam disclaimers are not even active, having died in committee without ever being voted on by Congress, let alone "passed."

    How It's Done

    Know your enemy.

    Methods of Address Collection

    Many senders of junk email appear to have gathered email addresses from Usenet News postings. There are several services available on the Net that will filter news by keywords (DejaNews Research Service, NewsWeeder(tm), or the Stanford Information Filtering Tool (SIFT), for example) and thus send you a list of articles on a certain topic (at least, if you pick good keywords). Using these sorts of services, in conjunction with an automated script to parse out email addresses, allows the junk-mailer to construct a list of future victims. Note that the junk-mailer does not have the courtesy to even read these postings, let alone actually participate in the newsgroups.


    A couple of junk messages I have received have indicated that, unbeknownst to me, I have been signed up on some kind of automatic junk mailing list. It indicated an 800 number that I could call to get put on a "do-not-junk-mail" list, but why should I have to do this?

    There are literally thousands of legitimate automated mailing lists available on the Net, usually running on LISTSERV or Majordomo software. To subscribe to the mailing list, a user must send a request message with a particular keyword in the body to the command processor email address. Subscribers can later send an "unsubscribe" message to the command processor to remove themselves from the list. Note that the subscriber has to take a specific action to subscribe to the list, an "opt-in" system.

    In the case of junk email I received from ixc.ixc.net, the user has been subscribed against their will, and the only way to unsubscribe is to call an 800 number! (Which, incidentally, makes your phone number appear on their service bill--even if you dial the *67 to disable Caller ID.) You can imagine what the state of the net would be if this "opt-out" system became the norm for all the more than 54,000 of automatic mailing lists. Users would be doing nothing all day but downloading unwanted messages and trying to get off of mailing lists.

    Therefore, I consider this rogue behavior on the Internet, to be dealt with accordingly.

    Chain Letters and Ponzi (Pyramid) Schemes

    Some junk email you receive will be of the chain letter persuasion. Chain letters are a waste of bandwidth and of many people's valuable time. Just because it is easy to send a chain letter on to several people, doesn't mean it is a good idea. You should not forward chain email, no matter how dire the threatened supernatural consequences.

    Some chain letters also involve sending money through the snail mail. You add your name to the bottom of a list, send a few bucks to the people at the top of the list, and soon, the letters invariably promise, vast riches will be winging your way in little envelopes. The only problem is, of course, that the people at the top of the list are really only a couple of people with a lot of addresses, and all sucker money goes to them. This is known as a Ponzi Scheme or Pyramid Scam. If it asks you to send any money through the mail, it is also completely illegal, specifically, it violates the Postal Lottery Statute, which is Title 18, United States Code, Section 1302.

    Don't believe the bogus argument of email that claims this particular scheme is legal because you are really paying for a "legitimate service" or product (usually claimed to be the service of compiling the list itself). If it involves putting you name on a list and sending cash to other names on the list (in other words, paying earlier players with money from later players), it's a pyramid scheme, and it's illegal.

    According to US Postal Service information about chain letters (pointed out to me by Mark Horne), you can report such schemes by sending a hard copy of the offending document to:

    Postal Inspector
    c/o Postmaster
    Your Town, Your State Your Zip

    You don't even need to use a stamp!
    (No stamp required for official postal business.)

    Your local Postmaster forward it to the Postal Inspector at the appropriate regional office (there's something like a dozen regions). They'll investigate, send warning letters, or take legal action as appropriate, and send you a letter explaining what transpired (it may take a long time, however).

    Do-Not-Mail Lists

    I want to say up front that I don't believe in the "do-not-call list" model of preventing junk email. This is an approach proposed by a few Internet advertisers that is modeled on the Telemarketing Association's list of people who don't want phone solicitations. In a nutshell, you submit your email address to them, and they put you in a database that they claim they are going to sell to mass emailers so that they can take you off their mass-email list.

    I have two fundamental problems with this approach. First of all, it legitimizes the idea of mass-emailing (junk emailing) by essentially saying that it can be made acceptable by offering an (unreliable and unproven) way for victims to opt out. Secondly, it offers junk emailers an excuse to keep junk-mailing people who don't know how to get on these lists.

    One of these sites wants you to submit your email address to a page that is really unprofessional-looking and poorly constructed, and it has an inexperienced Net-newbie feel to it, which doesn't inspire confidence. Frankly, I find it a little hard to trust the competence and ethics of a database holder who can't even spell the word "etiquette."

    Note also that mass-emailers have no incentive to remove any names from their lists. Their advertisements brag about the size of their lists, i.e., "We'll send your advertizement to OVER 1,000,000 email addresses!" Obviously, it is in their interest to have as may addresses as possible, and not to remove any.

    The reason that this approach sort of works in the Real World is because there is a specific federal law in the United States that mandates this database list be honored. There is currently no such legislation applying to unsolicited email, so there is no reason for junk emailers to honor any such list. As noted earlier, the phone model is based on a system where the caller pays for the call--this is not true in email, where the recipient foots the bill. Also, I don't think the system is a model to be emulated anyway, because it to doesn't work very well to stop phone solicitations. It was really just an example of Congress caving in to the telemarketing industry--it puts all the burden on the victim to keep the list updated, and requires reregistering every couple of years.

    Big Net Companies and their Sometimes Unhelpful Attitudes

    Big connection providers (like Sprint, for examples) often are not ISPs, instead, ISPs are their customers. Generally, if you complain to them, you will get a canned response to the effect that they don't police their customer ISPs' individual users, and recommend contacting the ISP. In a way, they have a point--complaining to them about a single junk email is like calling the phone company when you get a crank phone call. On the other hand, if there is a pattern of abuse (you get lots of crank calls from the same number) or if the scale is large enough (lots of people getting crank calls) the phone company does eventually step in. If they get enough complaints, or if the ISP demonstrates a repeated pattern of abuse, or someone with a lot of suck complains (for example, AOL), the big pipe providers will take action.

    If you and others have tried everything else and the junk email just keeps coming, it is a rogue site, and your only hope is to get the upstream provider to cut the site off from the rest of the net.

    MCI has an excellent AUP, which has been emulated throughout the industry.

    The biggest online service, with well over 6 million members, is, of course, America Online (AOL). If the junk email is from America Online, the complaint address is abuse@aol.com. AOL is surprisingly responsive, and boots offenders pretty quickly. But as long as they keep letting people have immediate, unverified access to the Internet with their ubiquitous diskettes, junk mail will never stop emanating from there.

    Netcom has a similar problem. I get more junk email from Netcom "throwaway" accounts than any other single source. Netcom has also gotten serious about dealing with junk email, I'm happy to report.

    Other Resources


    I am happy to report that I am not the only person annoyed by this behavior. Here are some other people on the net who also think junk email is wrong.

    The Enemy

    • Bulk Email "Some people do frown upon this method, but they are a minority"--yeah, right.
    • Check out the Direct Marketing Association and Interactive Services Association's Principles for Unsolicited Marketing E-mail as well as their Guidelines on Online Solicitation. But what do you expect--these are the people who think unsolicited sales phone calls are a Good Idea, and who fought the junk fax law.
    • CV Communications Bulk E-Mail Reseller; check out their false marketing claims "everyone reads their email" and offers to insulate their advertisers by filtering out negative responses--shouldn't that be a clue to their customers that junk email is a Bad Idea?
    • Email Enterprises offers complete junk email "solutions," including address slurping software
    • Newmarkets, Incorporated supports "Direct Emailing" (junk email)
    • Southwind Enterprises claims to be "one of the first advertising firms to enter in the Bulk E-mail specialty"
    • Vernon Hale's Floodgate site Floodgate is bulk email address slurper
    • SoftCell has spammed me many times.
    • What junk email list could be complete without Sanford Wallace's CyberPromo?--Whoops, SprintNet yanked his access! It may interest you to know that Sanford Wallace used to be in the bulk junk fax business, until that was made illegal. I have heard it alleged that Wallace was almost single-handedly responsible for the original junk-fax law.
    • Dearborn, Michigan-based AGIS, a large Internet backbone provider, has continued to allow their customers (CyberPromo and other junk email outfits) to pollute the network with massive amounts of bulk unsolicited commercial email, and refuses to take any action against them despite repeated complaints from the victims. Because AGIS is a backbone provider, a peer of UUnet, ANS, etc., there simply isn't anyone above them to complain to. They claim that they are going to start requiring all their customers to consult and honor a master remove list that AGIS will maintain--an "opt-out" system that is completely unworkable.

    The Authorities


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    Last Updated:
    Monday, February 25, 2002
    at 1:06:41 AM by JCR

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