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UK freelance journalist and author Sean McManus

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Inside the mind of a spammer II

26 June 2006

I have edited and updated yesterday's article Inside the mind of a spammer, to include comments from an antivirus reseller. The comments did not arrive in time for first publication and make a significant contribution to the article.

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Photos: Google Map updated

24 June 2006

Screenshot of my Google MapI've updated my World Travel Photography Map with new photos including three of Corfu, two from Brussels and three from Berlin.

I've added extended captions for many older photos. The new captions indicate where it's worth zooming in for a satellite view (eg of the Atomium).

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Inside the mind of a spammer

I've noticed an alarming trend in spam lately. Most spammers know they're slimeballs. They're selling drugs to vulnerable people, preying on people's debt or trying to con the stock markets. More and more, though, I'm seeing people who think they're running legitimate businesses using spam to promote themselves.

A website called Sirlook spammed me in May to promote its online chat system for websites, even though its own terms and conditions say that its customers may not 'upload, post, email, transmit or otherwise make available any unsolicited or unauthorized advertising, promotional materials' (clause 5g) [link no longer available]. I contacted the company asking for clarification on this apparent conflict but did not hear back.

The so-called Association of Professional Recruitment Consultants spammed a non-existent address (sales@ one of my domains) with its newsletter in April. Its code of conduct (which it claims is "the strictest in the industry") says members must 'strive to serve clients and candidates with honesty and with integrity at all times' (first clause) [link no longer available]. When asked, the organisation failed to explain how sending junk email to invented email addresses is consistent with this policy.

I think the fact that these organisations send spam, cannot justify it and do not respond to complaints tells us more about their business ethics than any code of conduct or testimonial on their websites.

So perhaps we should extend our thanks to John Marshall, who spammed me about Mywebalert and was the first spammer I contacted who had the nads to answer my questions. He said he had identified me as someone selling website design services (which I'm not, currently) and that he found my email address as a legitimate way to contact my business (which I don't have - I'm an individual, not a business). This might have been a defensive move because it's illegal to send unsolicited adverts to personal email addresses in the UK.

When asked, Marshall claimed that he doesn't run antispam software himself, which seems extremely unlikely if he's able to use email with any kind of efficiency. I guess it would have been too easy a victory if he had said he did run antispam software, because then I'd go 'Aha! Gotcha!' and the credits would roll. It's hard to imagine someone at an established company having an unfiltered email feed in 2006 that isn't crammed full of spam. I have to confess I think he might be fibbing, or at least using an extremely narrow definition of what 'running antispam software' means.

He said:

I could telephone you, which would take more of your time. Alternatively I could repeatedly post mail to you, which although likely to produce better results from a marketing point of view is far from environmentally friendly and adds to a recipient's woes insomuch that paper is less easily discarded than email.

In my view (accepting that you have the right to an alternative opinion) email advertising is an extension to ordinary mail advertising which is prevalent in a modern economy. It is widely recognised as often being a legitimate means of business development, which in turn generates jobs, etc. Within reason, I do believe that a legitimate commercial organisation should be at will to market itself by telephone, street/magazine/TV/radio advertising, etc.

I note with interest that you are writing an article. For which publication? Does it carry advertising? Does it carry sponsorship? Are you being paid to write the article? If not, why are you writing the article? My last point arises as the directors of MyWebAlert are regular contributors to Computing, Computer Weekly, IT WEEK without charge but in recognition of the fact that it is good for PR.

The stuff about who pays me to write confused me a bit. I responded:

The difference between advertising in magazines and on email is where the cost/benefit lies. So in the case of buying a magazine, the advertising subsidises the content I receive. In the case of receiving junk email, I have to pay my service provider and time to receive something which in no way subsidises or creates any benefit for me - do let me know if I've overlooked anything there. Note that I'm not against all advertising - just inappropriate advertising, which includes intrusive email advertising I have to pay for. With mail advertising, the company sending the advert carries all the costs, which seems much more reasonable although you're right that it is still a massive waste of time and resources.

Marshall continued:

In general, I am an advocate of personalised email advertising which I differentiate from mass spam on the grounds:
  1. that all those that I target are targeted on the premise that I believe there should be valid interest based on individual research;
  2. that you will not be subject to repeat mail from me;
  3. that I manually maintain records and will not write again to you if you do not wish me to (please advise);
  4. that I am not a robot and you are assured of a human response to any questions that you may have.

These justifications don't really match the reality of what was sent, though. To call it personalised is a bit rich when it was basically advertising copy emailed with no greeting or letter format. It began: 'MyWebAlert is a comprehensive website monitoring service that affords you an opportunity...'.

It gets worse: Network Architects spammed me this week to promote an antispam-solution from Roaring Penguin. The mind boggles.

It began: 'This email is being sent to you as an individual identified as responsible for the maintenance of your network and attached resources.'. When I contacted Roaring Penguin to point out that one of its partners was using spam to sell its antispam solution, it did get Network Architect's MD Martin Smyth to contact me and said it had reminded him of Roaring Penguin's email usage policies. I was curious to find out how I was identified as someone responsible for a network (which I'm not), and particularly how this message was different to the unsolicited commercial emails that the software they're selling blocks.

I asked Martin Smyth how he got hold of my email address. He said:

Impossible to say precisely. Contact details have been built over a period of time as a result of formal/casual meetings at exhibitions, seminars and press events, enquiries through the website, employees joining the Company and adding the contacts to the database, etc.

This is a pretty sloppy way to run a list. Because companies have had a legal obligation since 2003 to get opt-in permission before sending commercial emails outside their customer base in the UK, best practice is to keep a record of where and when people opted in. I'm not a lawyer, but employees taking list details from one organisation where you have opted-in to another where you have not sounds very much like a breach of the Data Protection Act too. This answer does nothing to reassure me the company didn't just lift my email address off my website.

So why was I erroneously identified as managing a network and what makes a message spam? Smyth says:

In general, all contacts made by and with Network Architects are related to the IT and networking industry as appears to be the case in this instance with your interest in this subject. The precise message of a mailer as you know will never be perfectly tailored to each individual to whom it is sent. In this way, e-marketing does not differ from generic marketing, albeit in this case, the target audience is far more closely identified as appropriate
that would be the case, for example of email that we would determine as 'Spam' that is indiscriminately and repeatedly sent to a completely unqualified target base.

Or to cut it short:

email that we would determine as 'Spam' ... is indiscriminately and repeatedly sent to a completely unqualified target base.

This implies that he believes it's not spam if it's a bit targeted and it's only sent once. Remember, Smyth is MD of a company selling an antispam solution. This is a slippery slope. What if a spammer sent out millions of emails - once only - promoting viagra to men? By excluding women and only writing once, has the spammer become an ethical marketer? It's still a massive intrusion for nearly all men who are not interested in viagra. Even if you're a viagra buyer, does that mean any company selling it can ethically clog up your email box with adverts for it? And even if we were to pretend that it's okay to be spammed by each business once, the problem with spam is that the sum of all these 'once only' emails overwhelms mailboxes.

The definition of spam in use here is egocentric without consideration for the recipient or even regard for the content. It's about how the communication is issued and managed, without thought for the effect it has on the recipient. As an email user, I consider any unsolicited commercial email to be spam. Even if the person behind it thinks I buy their kind of product sometimes, or might do, it's still spam to me. Even if it only comes once, that's once too many.

Smyth concludes:

In addition to the above, you will have noted that this process is managed by human intervention. If you wish to no longer hear from us then I will remove your details from the list. You therefore have complete control over this message whereas this is not the case with other sources of email. This email will be sent only once and you will not receive any further communication after this email.

The fact that both Marshall and Smyth only email once undermines their whole argument. It's like a tiny apology hidden in there. 'I know it's wrong', people say, 'but I only did it once'. I see this a lot from individuals who send spam representing themselves. M.Wild of Westminster University apparently spammed the whole student body in December 2005. He started by saying 'first of all, sorry for spamming you all. i dont normally do this but this could be good for everyone and it works!!' before pushing some ridiculous multilevel ipod thing. The problem with spam is that by the time you're saying sorry, you're already intruding on someone's inbox, wasting their time and bandwidth.

Like Marshall, Smyth believes it's okay if there's a human there to pick up the complaints. To their credit, the correspondence I have had with both Marshall and Smyth bears this out. But they're probably rarely called upon to demonstrate this because nobody trusts a spammer. Reply addresses on spam are usually faked and spammers rarely honour remove requests so recipients will have little faith that contacting them would have any effect. Indeed, many spammers take a remove request as confirmation an address works and bombard it.

You probably get as much spam as I do and have heard the arguments against it before. What's worrying here is that all these companies (including those that didn't respond to my interview request) consider themselves to be legitimate businesses, and apart from the spamming, I've got no reason to think they're not. One of them even sells antispam software.

I'm sympathetic to the problems that businesses have promoting themselves when they start off, but spam isn't a shortcut to success. Markets are conversations, and if everything you send is greeted by obscenities, distrust and deletion you're not getting anywhere. Two of my friends met online after he emailed her about an error in a discography on her site. They're married now. There's no reason why great business relationships shouldn't evolve from email too. But they're not going to come from spam because you can't automate sincerity and nobody wants to deal with a fake. Here's an email from someone allegedly called Todd:


For the second time in a week I found myself visiting your website, so I figured hey "why not drop a request while I'm here this time around".

I actually found your site by accident actually while searching on google last week and ended up cliking on the link. I checked out a few of the pages and so far so good. I hope you keep updating the content, cause I'll probably be checking back again.........

Aaah! That's nice! But then we cut to the chase...
By the way, I'm also currently doing a link exchange for http://www.barretire.com/ (a quality well kept PR5 site) and thought to ask if you would be interested in having us as an honest link exchange partner.

Why would I be interested in exchanging links with a trashy affiliate website about cars? Especially since I already know Todd is not an 'honest link exchange partner'. If he really had visited my site twice and spent so much time there he wanted to come back, he'd know my site's nothing to do with tyres. I don't even drive.

There are ways to target promotions without using email. Companies can use contextual advertising, which has a low entry price and enables them to find customers at the time they're looking for their services. Google Adwords is one example of this. Microsoft is working on an advertising system that will enable you to track people by their personal profiles, not just the keywords they're using. You can also place legitimate paid adverts on other relevant websites to attract traffic. This has been made even easier now that Google Adsense enables people to place adverts on a specific site that uses it. There are drawbacks, yes, but they're ethical ways to attract an audience. This is more akin to the magazine example Marshall raised, where the advertising subsidises valuable content.

Spam won't go away. There will always be con-men and enough suckers to make it pay. But legitimate companies that think they're ethical and 'only do the odd bit of spam' are mistaken. If you behave like a spammer, you are a spammer. You're a destructive force and the internet would be a better place without you.

Some notes:

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Domain name scam

22 June 2006

I just got a letter from the 'Domain Registry of America', which is headed 'Domain Name Expiration Notice' and looks much like an invoice. It's just a company trying to get me to transfer the hosting of one of my domains to them. I think they've toned down their letters a bit, but they've been sending out letters for some years now that look a lot like official domain name renewal invoices and probably get paid by default by small businesses. Most of the domain name scams I wrote about in 2003 seem to have dried up, but it's worth keeping an eye out for this one still.

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Book review: A piano in the Pyrenees by Tony Hawks

21 June 2006

After lugging a fridge around Ireland, chasing Moldovan footballers to challenge them to play tennis, and increasingly desperate attempts to have a hit single, life's slowed down a bit for Tony Hawks. His latest book 'A Piano in the Pyrenees' tells the story of how he bought a nice holiday home in France, moved a piano over there and chilled out with his friends.

He still has a flair for character sketches and for humorous writing. It's just that the material's a bit weak. There is a 15 page section about a village event where everyone follows the cows up into the mountains. It's a gruelling journey and a long day, but it all falls a bit flat when Hawks ducks out early and ends up committing a minor faux pas in front of the mayor: not really the kind of punchline you'd expect after such a big build-up.

Most of the book's pretty hum-drum: Buying houses abroad, wrangling with foreign bureaucracy, moving house, and building a swimming pool are common enough experiences that you'd never get an autobiography commissioned on the back of them. Reading the book is a gentle and pleasant enough journey - it just doesn't feel structured or particularly special at the end. Put it this way: you or I could never get this book commissioned on its outline, and probably not on the strength of any of these chapters either.

If you've lived in the region he writes about, it might be a lot funnier for you. If you enjoyed his other books, you'll probably like reading his style again. For me, it was an enjoyable but lazy read. After all his previous madcap stunts, I was pleased to read a book in which he seems to be content, rather than just jolly. But I'd be surprised if the market will be as tolerant and it seems unlikely this book will recapture the commercial success of his debut.

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Paper is so retro

01 June 2006

All the hip kids download their books nowadays. I've written some short reviews of ebooks I've read. I'll add to this page as I come across interesting new ebooks. So far, they're divided into fiction, non-fiction (general) and music. It's not the Dewey system, but it's a start.

I have also updated two pages in my section about promoting your music online today:


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Electroplankton: singing with the fishes

Electroplankton (and at Amazon.co.uk) is the first software I've seen on the Nintendo DS that has impressed me. It's basically a pocket toolkit for creating generative music, divided into ten sections. There's one where you draw lines across the screen and fishes swim along them. As they do, they make a sound which changes in pitch according to how the line is drawn across the screen. There's another section where four fishes swim across the screen and you can record a different sample for each and they're all looped together. The most engrossing module is one where you have fishes bouncing between nodes on a grid. Each node represents a different note and has a pointer to another node, which you can turn to make the fishes go to a different node next. As the fishes bounce around the nodes at different speeds, they make layered music that reminds me of some of Brian Eno's work. In another module, you press different boxes on the screen to play notes. Each melody is looped four times, so you can build up layered pieces that change over time. It's all good fun, and the most accessible way to dabble with generative music.

Some of the levels are little more than toys, but others are sophisticated enough that you could consider them to be instruments. This poses some interesting questions: if I write music using Electroplankton, who owns the rights? The manual (PDF, 6MB) doesn't say, but does invite you to perform using Electroplankton without asking for any money for the privilege. Clearly the designer Toshio Iwai has invested time and creativity in making the level designs, algorithms and sounds that make my music possible. But without my creative input, the music would be random. Electroplankton does feature a computer-plays mode, so perhaps Nintendo would argue that my creative input is unnecessary? In which case, are we all just wasting our time?

We could go around the houses on this for ages, but it does seem amiss of Nintendo not to clarify the issue up-front. Still, if we are all wasting our time, there are worse ways to do that than listening to ambient music while watching cartoon fishes with big grins dancing.

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