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November 2001, Week 1 -- So Many Ads, so Few Delete Keys

 

   A lot of readers complain about spam. This refers to the number of advertisements and solicitations in their e-mail. Do I know what they're talking about? Are you kidding? Are frogs waterproof? It's getting worse: I used to get 50 unsolicited ads a day, now I get 100.

   I get an e-mail a day from Nigeria, for example, offering to cut me in on some complicated deal to transfer millions of dollars to the United States. I can keep a big piece of these millions if only I send them some money of my own to show my good faith. Wow, what a deal. Most ads aren't as obviously stupid as this, and some are getting very tricky. After I clicked delete on a recent e-mail pitching pornographic pictures, a screen popped up asking me to click "next" to confirm my order. What order? I had to shut down the computer to get rid of it.

 

   Defense, defense, as the home team always shouts at football games.  Nothing works completely but here are some tools that can help:

 

-- www.spamcop.net  For 50 cents a megabyte they will filter your e-mail and get most of the junk out. E-mail messages tend to be pretty small, around 8KB on average, unless there are pictures or decorative elements. So a megabyte (1,000 KB) would equal 125 average messages. The company says the average user ends up paying around $12 a year, though filtering 125 messages wouldn't cover one day's e-mail for this column.

 

For no charge, SpamCop lets you send a public report to network administrators, identifying spammers using their system. Of course, for them I guess this represents their own kind of spam.

 

-- www.spamhaus.org   Maintains a list of well-known spammers and the ISPs (Internet Service Providers) that keep them in business. Site also has links to tools you can set up yourself to filter some spam.

-- www.safeweb.com  The site lets you browse anonymously while getting out most ads, including the increasingly annoying "pop-up" ads. The site blocks profiling cookies (more explanation of this later) and even profiles the profilers who are doing this. During all your browsing the site masks your computer's address; thus you can't get on somebody's mailing list. There are some problems with this approach. To wit:

 

   Some web sites will not let you enter unless you are willing to accept cookies. So you may be cut off from some interesting sites. What are cookies? Cookies are small blocks of computer code that collect your computer's Internet address and maybe some record of your browsing habits, and send that back to the host computer of the site you are visiting.

 

   This can be perfectly harmless, and usually is. The next time you visit that site, it will often come up more quickly because it recognizes your call letters, so to speak; it may even make browsing easier because it knows where you like to go.

 

   Increasingly often, however, your address is collected to be added to a mailing list which the site owner then sells to spammers. One manager for a commercial site told me that selling the mailing list was the most profitable part of the business. Which, of course, is why some sites won't let you on board if you don't eat the cookie.

   How else do you, I, or anyone else, get on these mailing lists? Let me count the ways, as the poet sayeth.

   First and foremost, never, and I mean never, resort to the option that asks you to reply to this e-mail with "remove" in the subject line, or something similar. You may think you are thereby shutting them off but what you are really doing is notifying the spammer that there is an actual person, probably an adult, at this address. They've got a live one! Now they can send you lots more spam and sell your name to other spammers.

 

   The main way you get on mailing lists, though, is by simply browsing the web. Some sites have messages saying they never provide your name and address to other mailers. Most sites say nothing, and you can bet they put you on a mailing list. We saw a sudden jump in the number of e-mail ads we got shortly after visiting eBay, for example.

 

   Mailing lists are often swapped between companies with related businesses. Looking for a digital camera? That site will likely swap your name with other camera sites. Those may swap lists with photo editing sites. Those can swap with photo providers. You may have started with an upright site, but four or five swaps ("courtesy exchanges") down the road, who knows what list you're on.

 

   The latest wrinkle is "spyware." These are programs that "watch" your surfing habits. They sometimes come as part of free downloads that have ads of their own. The program analyzes the kind of sites you visit, reports back to its master, and sends you ads based on your presumed interests. The more sites you visit, the more ads you get.

-- LavaSoft www.lavasoftusa.com  has a free Windows program called "Ad-aware" that searches out spyware programs. It provides the option of viewing and killing each spyware program manually or automatically. Always do it manually, so you can see what you're deleting.

And remember: Nothing works on everything, you will still get ads.

NOTE: Readers can search nearly four years of columns at the "On Computers" web site: www.oncomp.com. You can e-mail Bob Schwabach at bobschwab@oncomp.com  or bobschwab@aol.com.

 

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