Why  Spam  Sucks
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In 2004, spam constituted 75% of all 2004 email (Nucleus Research, cited in Business Week, February 7, 2005).  By 2008, that figure was up to 90%.  (Cisco Systems Annual Security Report).

Spammers place a huge burden on Internet Service Providers (ISPs) by forcing them to buy more equipment and hire more staff to block (when possible) or deliver (when not possible) the ever-growing volume of spam.  And since emailers aren’t charged per email sent, the cost of all the unwanted, offensive spam is passed on to consumer and business subscribers – built into monthly access fees.  Unwilling recipients – you! – are paying for all the spam.  This is analogous to receiving unwanted telemarketing calls on a pay-per-minute cellular telephone. 

Spam is almost always unwanted by recipients, and it often contains highly offensive or illegal material, such as pornography or advertisements for counterfeit software.  Spam requires significant time to analyze and delete, because the subject lines are often highly misleading, which makes it hard to find important email.  The volume of spam can make it prohibitively expensive to use a pay-by-data-volume means of email access (such as a wireless Palm Pilot) or a pay-by-the-minute means of email access (such as a telephone line at a hotel). 

Spam is often used to deliver viruses or spyware or introduce other harmful agents into recipients’ computers, so never double-click an attachment you don’t recognize, especially if there’s a .zlo or .exe in the filename, even if it appears that Yahoo or Paypal is requesting account update information.  Spam is a means of perpetuating deceptive, if not illegal, business schemes.  Spammers trespass into recipients’ emailboxes (where the spam takes up some of a user’s fixed storage allocation and could cause important legitimate email to “bounce back”) and onto recipients’ hard drives (where the spam contributes to fragmenting the physical hard drive, which can reduce the computers’ performance). 

When utilizing traditional direct marketing through the mail, the sender must pay for paper, printing, lettershopping, and postage, and so must use a certain amount of cost/benefit analysis before sending the advertisements to ensure that the advertisements are not sent to unwilling recipients or to those who have no or little chance of responding.  However, the economics of the spam are such that after a certain fixed cost to build a website and create an email advertisement, the variable cost of sending a spam to each additional (and unwilling) recipient is essentially zero.  Therefore, the spammer has little financial incentive to carefully screen its database and lists and remove those recipients who opted out, and every financial incentive to blast as many emails as possible.  (As usual, there are always some leeches in society who take advantage of the status quo for their own benefit, to the detriment of others.)  In fact, once a spammer acquires an email address, usually through non-legitimate means, it may take more effort to unsubscribe a recipient than to just keep spamming the recipient.  And because spammers often sell lists to each other, removing an email address from a database can have a negative financial impact to a spammer.

The Internet offers tremendous potential for marketers to deliver precisely targeted and customized information and offers to consumers who truly want to receive them, but all too often, spammers abuse the potential of the technology and instead take advantage of zero-variable-cost nature of email to blast their unsolicited advertisements at every email address they possibly can.  Let me repeat this point – there is no financial incentive for a spammer to do any kind of list management that a traditional (offline) marketer would use.  That’s why men get spammed for breast enlargement pills and women get spammed for penis enlargement pills; why people with regular plumbing get spammed for septic tank solutions; why children get spammed with prostitution ads, etc.

The spam volume is growing so high – and some of the content is so offensive – that spam is actually threatening the legitimacy of email as a means for communication.  I've sent emails to clients and potential clients that were deleted, because the recipient thought that they might have been spam.

Are you as outraged yet as I am?

Personally, I think that if senders could be forced to pay even a fraction of a penny per email, the spam problem would disappear almost immediately.  Consumers and legitimate marketers can afford that tiny cost, but it would absolutely kill the spam business.  As it is, since there is no variable cost, even the smallest response rate to a spam can result in big profits for the spammers.

But since that isn’t going to happen anytime in the immediate future, in the absence of an economic reason to stop spamming unwilling consumers, only litigation seems to make an impact.  And the Courts, in California and other states, have begun ruling against the spammers.

What You Can Do Now: Technological Solutions

Many ISPs, like Earthlink, have their own anti-spam filters like Brightmail that get rid of the crap before you ever get it.  There are corporate-level solutions like FrontBridge Technologies.  Email service providers like Yahoo!, Hotmail, and AOL have filters too.  And even computer novices can install programs like McAfee’s SpamKiller, MailFrontier’s Matador, CloudMark’s SpamNet, and Sunbelt Software’s I Hate Spam locally on your PC.  SpamCop is a web-based system that filters your email before you read it, and you can keep your current email address (except AOL).  SpamArrest is a challenge-response system that makes the sender of an email – just the first time – click a link and type in a key word in order to verify that the sender is a real person and not a bulk-mailer before allowing the email to go through… since spammers usually forge the sender email address, they won’t ever receive the challenge and thus won’t be able to make the verification, nor would they have the time to do so, considering the millions of spams they send out.

You can also click here for CAUCE's (Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial Email) view on the problem.

© 2002-present, Daniel Balsam