Spam: Why it May Never Go Away

We all receive it, delete it, and most of us filter it. But spam still returns. Defined as unsolicited commercial email (from legitimate or illegitimate sources), spam used to be recognizable by its suspicious subject lines and unexpected or unknown sender.

But now you can open an email that appears to be from your mother and find a business request from a foreign country instead. Perhaps the most troubling spam messages of late are the ones with strange combinations of nonsensical words followed by a URL (as if these incomprehensible messages would compel us to click on the link!)

Why Do They Do It and Why Can't We Catch Them? Wading through all this, one wonders just who the spammers are and why they persist in believing we'll fall for their ridiculous and unappealing solicitations. According to Federal Trade Commission chair Tim Muris, most spammers do not represent legitimate businesses. Spammers pelt thousands of email accounts with business pitches because it costs them very little to send out. Even with an ?extraordinarily low? response, they can turn a profit from those few takers. Furthermore, sending spam is low-risk because the anonymity of the Internet makes it difficult to catch the perpetrators. The only way to track them down, said Muris, is to follow the money trail from the consumer to the seller and back to the spammer.

Spam Gets Smarter Unfortunately, there is no single solution to stopping spam, though there are ways to minimize it. For example, of the 17 million emails processed by UC Davis during January, 2004, nearly 6 million were tagged as spam and either automatically sent to a spam folder or automatically deleted. Regardless of the success of this spam filtering, those invasive email messages persist.

Since most spam filtering mechanisms are wired to recognize only the types of spam that they have filtered before, spammers always seem to be one step ahead of the filters. Thus, inventive sp ammers create new variations of spam that can slip through the cracks in existing filters. Thus, there is often a window of time during which new spam is not yet recognized by filters and inboxes are flooded with a new iteration of the same old stuff.

Will CAN-SPAM Actually Can Spam? State and federal lawmakers have recently begun to step up legislation efforts to stop the deluge of spam. The federal CAN-SPAM Act (Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing) took effect at the beginning of 2004 and prohibits the use of commercial email to commit fraudulent or misleading acts. The federal act did not outlaw spam, but took a stab at defining it, and delineating the wrong and right ways to serve up spam. CAN-SPAM requires that spammers provide a special subject line heading for messages containing sexually oriented material in addition to a functional ?opt-out? option for recipients, allowing them to be taken off the spammer's mailing list and thereby preventing future spam from the sender. Spam recipients have up to 30 days to utilize the opt-out function.

The UC Office of the President deemed email from campus electronic mailing lists-- to which people willingly subscribe-- falls under the federal definition of spam. University email must now ?include a valid physical postal address of the sender and a clear means by which recipients can choose not to receive similar messages in the future.? For additional information about the CAN-SPAM Act or to read the UCOP guidelines for complying with the Act, visit

As spam will most likely always be with us, its up to you to delete it from your life. Check out these do's and don'ts to see what you can do about spam.

Spam Do's and Dont's

  • Do set up spam filtering at cfm.
  • Do set up spam filtering for lists if you are a list owner at
  • Do use spam filtering provided by the email client applications, such as Eudora, version 6.
  • Don't open any document attached to a spam message as it very likely could be infected with a virus.
  • Don't ever reveal personal information via email. Legitimate businesses won't ask for account numbers, SSNs, pin numbers, etc. over email. Contact the business directly.
  • Do check your spam folder for legitimate email messages that may have been incorrectly identified as spam.. There are often false-positives when automatic spam-filtering is involved.
  • Do send a complaint about received spam to the postmaster at the sending site; copy your complaint to .
  • Do use good judgment when choosing to reply to spam messages, even if just for an opt-out. Most spammers do not follow the law and may not honor your request. Some spammers will interpret your response as an open invitation to send you more spam.

According to CAN-SPAM Guidelines, Spammers must provide:

  1. A legitimate opt-out option for recipients who then have 30 days to take advantage of the opt-out.
  2. A valid physical postal address of the sender.
  3. Clearly marked warnings for messages containing sexually oriented material.