Life is full of annoyances, and spam is one of them. Unsolicited ads for get-rich-quick schemes, porn sites, hair restorers, time shares, Viagra merchants, herbal remedies, quickie mortgages, diploma mills and work-at-home rip-offs litter our e-mail boxes and give Internet service providers fits.
For example, a reader who signed up for an online merchant's newsletter recently wrote to tell me that he was being bombarded with junk mail. He had tried for weeks to "unsubscribe" but had been ignored. Was there anything he could do to stop the flood?
I wish I could offer a quick fix for the problem, but there isn't one. One reason is that from the sender's standpoint, spam works. Unlike snail mail, it costs almost nothing to send, and by the standards of the advertising industry, it's incredibly effective. While mass-mailers can expect a 2 percent or 3 percent success rate with snail-mail pitches, e-mail campaigns can easily generate five times that response rate, or more.
The Internet's e-mail protocol also makes it easy for junk-mailers to hide their identities by faking return addresses and routing information. Sometimes they exploit security holes in the systems of careless Internet service providers and hijack their e-mail machinery to send hundreds of thousands of messages. That makes spammers hard to track.
Although most recipients hate junk e-mail, and it collectively costs users and service providers millions of dollars, the direct-mail industry has shown no serious signs of controlling itself. Many of the worst offenders don't belong to industry organizations, anyway. Nor has Congress shown any inclination to pass effective spam-control legislation.
Fifteen states have enacted laws to protect their citizens from spam. They haven't had much impact, although some spammers have been successfully sued by ISPs for misappropriating their e-mail systems.
Last month, the toughest anti-spam law of the bunch, in Washington state, was thrown out in federal court because it violated the U.S. Constitution's Commerce Clause, which limits the power of states to regulate interstate commerce.
That doesn't leave you with many alternatives. As an e-mail user, you can complain to your ISP about junk mail, try to track it to the source and otherwise waste your time on this Internet pond scum. Junkbusters (www.junkbusters.com) has some good suggestions along those lines.
But I don't think it's worth the effort. Instead, I recommend two tactics to minimize the annoyance of spam. The first is to avoid it in the first place, while the second is to use your e-mail software to channel as much of the junk as possible into the trash can before it can get under your skin.
Today we'll concentrate on dodging the bullet, and the best advice for that is an old military adage: Present the smallest possible target to the enemy. That means giving out your real e-mail address only to the people you really care about -- friends, family and business associates.
I say "real" e-mail address because it's now possible to have as many e-mail addresses as you like, thanks to HotMail, Yahoo, Excite, AltaVista, Lycos and other Web-based "freemail" services. You'll find more than a thousand freemail services listed at www.emailaddresses.com. Sign up with a couple of these and set up e-mail accounts to use as decoys.
When you register, a freemail site may ask for your name and address, but there's no penalty for lying. If a freemail operator requires that you enter another, valid e-mail address, use your real address to set up your first freemail account, then use the first freemail address to validate the second account, and so on. This minimizes the exposure of your primary account.
AOL subscribers have an additional alternative. AOL provides each user with at least five screen names (seven if you use AOL's latest software). Each screen name is a separate e-mail address. Unless your family already uses all of yours, set up one or two screen names that you can use as e-mail decoys.
AOL recommends that you log on using one of these secondary screen names whenever you plan to enter its chat rooms or participate in other AOL activities. This will protect you from the spammers who lurk in corners, harvesting screen names for their mailing lists. When you want to send mail to people you care about, log on to AOL using your primary screen name.