E-mail spam prompts need for regulations

Saturday, May 3, 2003

When the Federal Trade Commission made its announcement about Internet spam this week, no regular e-mail user was surprised. The FTC merely confirmed the hassle that e-mail users experience every day.

Spam, in short, is the electronic version of junk mail. Unfortunately, it tends to be much more offensive and dangerous. Some e-mail users receive literally hundreds of spam messages each week, offering products to increase breast size, advertising Web sites for pornography or selling prescriptions with "no physical exam needed."

The most insidious part is the way spam senders disguise themselves. They use normal-sounding names in their addresses and engaging subject lines such as "You didn't return my call" or "Watch out" or "You need this."

FTC officials said this week that two-thirds of spam messages probably have false information either in their address, subject line or message content. Spam e-mails involving investment and business opportunities are worse, with an estimated 96 percent containing information that probably is false or at least misleading.

The FTC studied a random sample of 1,000 unsolicited e-mails taken from a pool of more than 11 million pieces of spam it has collected and checked the messages' text and the "from" and "subject" lines.

The problem isn't getting any better. The anti-spam company Brightmail recorded 6.7 million instances of multiple unsolicited messages being sent out in March, a 78 percent increase from a year ago.

Computer filters aren't very effective because spam senders find a way to get around them. Many filters block certain words from the subject line. Spammers dodge the filters by putting spaces in between the letters of obscene words or by using innocuous subject lines.

The FTC's announcement kicked off a three-day hearing on the issue. Let's hope officials will take away some information that can be molded into a federal law.

Missouri already has a virtually useless anti-spam law, which requires spammers to include an "opt-out" section in their unsolicited e-mails. Of course, everyone should know not to "unsubscribe" because it just lets these unethical spammers know they have discovered a working e-mail address.

But Missouri lawmakers should look seriously at a no-spam proposal currently before them. The bill won House approval last month but hasn't had a full Senate vote. Modeled on the popular no-call anti-telemarketing legislation, it would allow Missourians to submit their names and e-mail addresses to a list of e-mail users that spammers are banned from targeting. The danger is that spammers might use the list for more spam. And it's tougher to track those hiding behind false names and addresses.

Maybe the current proposal isn't the answer, but one must be out there. It's time to get tough on these thieves of the technology world and keep them from harassing Missourians in their own homes and workplaces.

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