It's unlikely that anyone except perhaps "the esteemed Dr. Hendrik Mbeki of Nigeria" celebrated last week's 25th anniversary of the first piece of "spam" sent via e-mail. In a quarter-century, the flood of unsolicited e-mail promising everything from a slice of African riches, guaranteed income and a better sex life to "my important medical news" has evolved from an occasionally humorous annoyance to an infuriating part of life online. Interestingly - and a tad suspiciously - in my e-mail accounts and around our office, the anniversary of spam was marked by a sudden explosion of junk mail.
Over the past two weeks, each of my my four e-mail addresses has been carpet-bombed by spam. It's only when you look at the numbers that you get a real idea of the size of the problem.
On Friday, May 9, my NOW account received 326 separate e-mails. Of these, 41 were useful pieces of information. The remaining 285 were pieces of spam: offers of Nigerian millions (from four different sources), photos of women with sheep, Viagra, unclaimed tax refunds and offers to block spam from my computer.
I have to take part of the blame. While I was on vacation a few weeks back, an auto-reply went out from my e-mail account notifying people that I was out of the office. It also added my address to potentially hundreds of other spam lists. Bad idea.
Some degree of spam has to be expected with a public e-mail address. More distressing for me is how my personal e-mail addresses have suddenly become fair game for the "esteemed Dr. Mbeki" as well. I like to think I've been fairly conscientious about keeping private addresses private. Part of the freedom of e-mail is being able to have multiple accounts - one for home, one for work, one for friends and one for junk.
My personal address is kept for personal use. Suddenly, two weeks ago, the flood began, first with offers of Viagra and "an extra 3 inches" and then with the familiar pitches for untold Nigerian millions squirrelled away in a secret account. I now receive at least 10 e-mails a day telling me there's an e-card awaiting me at www.BlueMountain.com. The personal and the public have never seemed closer.
I'm not the only one who's pissed. Several American state governments are considering legislation that would make spam, or at least the sending of unsolicited e-mails, illegal, although since many of these e-mails come from outside America or are untraceable (how do you track down firstname.lastname@example.org?), the law will be useless.
More distressing is that at least some of the spam scams are paying off. The New York Times quotes a recent study claiming that 8 per cent of more than 1,000 people surveyed bought an item promoted in an unsolicited e-mail. As long as the occasional fool keeps sending his or her vitals to Dr. Mbeki, he'll keep spamming us with requests for banking information.
For now, the best solution is even more careful use of e-mail, multiple addresses and deleting with extreme prejudice.
If that doesn't work, try humour. www.spamletters.com documents the letters one weary spam victim writes to senders offering free Disney vacations and 3 extra inches, and the hilarious responses he gets back. It's better than cursing at your screen.