NS Internet column
Written 22 November 1999 for the New Statesman
How quickly an intolerable outrage diminishes to a drizzly nuisance. This morning I had 293 messages in my spam folder, accumulated in two and a half months. I filter any message that is not addressed to me personally or from a list of named people and mailing lists. This means that there is always some stuff classified as "spam" which I have asked to receive but not set up a special folder for — press releases form the Catholic Media Office are the most extraordinary example. But they are balanced out by the messages I deleted instead of saving for analysis. It seems a reasonable claim that I get 25 real spams every week: somewhere between five and ten percent of my email.
So what are people trying to sell? The first shock is that very little of it seems to be porn any more. A year ago, at least half of the messages would be plugging porn sites. But only two of those I've saved this autumn are doing so; another message, of which I have five copies, is plugging premium-rate phone lines which will teach you irresistible chat-up lines. It is possible that these are more vigilantly blocked at the ISP level, at least in this country. In fact the only porn spam I have had for a month has been smuggled onto mailing lists, by some particularly nasty software which joins lists, extracts a list of the genuine members, and then sends messages in the name of one of them: the UK crypto mailing list, which discusses online security, got hit like that last month. This is necessary because most mailing lists nowadays only allow postings from members, after the first wave of spammers hit every mailing list they could find.
In place of porn, and much more directly exploitative, advertisements for "free credit" have flooded the wider net. For a mere fifty dollars, an outfit calling itself Security_For_U is promising real credit cards with a limit of $5000 to anyone over eighteen, whose weekly income is over $95. That's right. They are proposing to lend people fifty times their weekly income (with a promise of much more to follow in store cards). Presumably the same people, though mailing form an entirely different address, also have sent me an offer where the up-front fee is $40 and the proposed credit limit $4000. I really hope it is a pure scam with no cards at the end of it: that way the victims will only have to make a one-off payment.
The updraught feeding these flames is shown by the largest single category of spam: the ones urging me, as a vendor, to accept credit cards on my web site. There are 19 messages with "credit" in their title, as opposed to only 16 with "free" and none with "XXXX" These figures suggest that greed has taken over from lust as the predominant motor of internet commerce. The prize here goes to the man whose mailshot is so confident that the recipients don't notice what's in the headers that he sends it from "firstname.lastname@example.org".
Every single one of the spams I have received, including the offers to "work abroad", are aimed at Americans. Most of them in fact seem personally targetted at Homer Simpson. After the credit card related ads, the largest category are those selling "business opportunities" whose attraction is not just to the greedy and the stupid, but the ordinary desperate. Amidst all the pyramid schemes, and the chain letters, or the offers to become a salesman of "herbal viagra", there are a number which suggest that people just want to stop commuting, and to work from home.
Yet you have to work very hard to detect anything human or sympathetic in these ads. Still, there are moments when they break into a profound glimpse of a deeper reality: "YOU now have the opportunity to become a valuable and successful Internet Business Consultant, where making money at home or at an office is easy! Our program allows you to succeed and earn big income without any previous knowledge or experience working with computers."
It seems like a joke, until you look at the people who are cropping up as experts.