Out the Inbox

When I showed the post to Strouse, he said the recepient of the spam is a former GeekTech customer who doesn’t want to admit it. That seems unlikely, though, considering the number and variety of complaints this network administrator has posted in his crusade. He doesn’t appear to have any special vendetta for GeekTech. Also, antispam activists, perhaps more than anybody, know better than to sign up with a site, particularly a porn site, using their main email address. And with so much spam to complain about, why target someone who isn’t really a spammer?

Shown another similar complaint, Strouse blamed anti-porn crusaders for besmirching his company’s name in the newsgroups. “It’s not surprising,” he said. “Anti-porn people commonly opt in just so they can report it as spam. Would you ask a Nazi to be a character witness to a Jew? Come on, consider the source. Do you think anyone is stupid enough to spam a well-known anti-spam person? Seriously?”

Not stupid enough, perhaps, if they knew who they were spamming. It’s not as if spammers run their lists of thousands or millions of email addresses through a filter that weeds out the addresses of well-known antispam activists, or anybody else. Spam is like a firehose, not an eyedropper. Email addresses are collected in huge batches, harvested from Web sites and newsgroups using address-collection software or purchased in bulk from other spammers. Under the economics of spam, costs approach zero. Marginal costs are zero: Once you have the addresses, sending out millions of spams costs no more than sending out one. That’s why it’s such a huge problem, and that’s why most spammers don’t bother to target their messages or filter anyone out.

Whatever the evidence presented in the newsgroups, there’s no rock-solid proof that GeekTech has itself sent out any spam at all. As unlikely as it might seem, it’s possible that the spam examples posted in the newsgroups were forged or sent to real customers. All that’s missing is the motive for posting them. But that still leaves the problems surrounding the affiliate system, which Strouse steadfastly defends. “If you can come up with a better system, the Internet will make you a rich man. I am not a mind-reader and cannot stop something before it happens. If I could do that, I would be quite wealthy. Knowing who we are dealing with and having a reputation as non-spam-friendly is the best way to prevent it.”

GeekTech is in businesses other than porn. Last year, spam advertising a company called HealthStopUSA hit inboxes by the thousands. The newsgroups are rife with complaints about it. HealthStopUSA advertises “human growth hormone,” a controversial dietary supplement that promises to curb the effects of aging. It supposedly reduces body fat and wrinkles, and boosts energy levels, sexual potency, and memory. It’s legal to sell it, but it is widely viewed as a scam, as are many dietary supplements that aren’t considered drugs by the federal government. HealthStopUSA is owned by GeekTech, and operates much like the porn sites. And according to some administrators, it’s generating even more spam. “It, as well as any new and profitable affiliate program, will attract some spammers,” Strouse said. “When they get their accounts shut off and can’t make money promoting it, they go away fast enough.”

Perhaps. But by then, the damage has been done. And therein lies the main problem with affiliate programs: Even if they are operated by people who scrupulously boot spammers, nothing is done until after spam is sent out and people complain. That might not be so bad if there were only a few such programs, but there are thousands—from backroom companies testing the edge of legitimacy to reputable public companies like America Online. Put them altogether and you have a massive spam problem, even before you take into account Nigerian banking scams and fake-diploma mills.

Strouse said his company is better than most. “By comparison our system draws very few complaints,” he said. “We have been operating the same sites for almost eight years. You can’t maintain that longevity by allowing drive-by spammers into your affiliate program. Sometimes they try to sneak in but it doesn’t take long to catch them and blacklist them from the programs. With any luck the new spam law will put an end to the shady, fly-by-night programs and we’ll all see less spam in our inboxes.” Given how much spam has passed through the Net since the Can-Spam Act went into effect on January 1, we’ll need a lot more than luck.

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