Network: Something evil in your inbox

E-mail is rapidly becoming many people's preferred method of communicat ion. But its growing popularity also brings the potential for abuse - both Steve Crawshaw, writing below, and Steve Phillips, right, have experienced the darker side of cyberspace
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
I had been looking forward to the day when we would get e-mail at home. Receiving electronic postcards from friends and colleagues around the world - what could be more pleasant?

I duly registered with the chosen service provider. So far, so simple. A few hours later, I logged on for a quick stumble around the Internet. To my surprise, a disembodied voice informed me: "You've got mail." Who could have written to me already? What drama, what excitement! I eagerly double-clicked to discover what the postman had dropped on the electronic hall mat.

And there the surprises began. In the subject field, the messages had titles like "Replying to your message", and equally innocuous stuff. Inside, almost all the messages offered teen sex, in terms that would make a Central London phone kiosk blush. (On a machine that was - theoretically - bought primarily for the use of my 12-year-old daughter.)

To start with, my experience made me assume that all e-mail subscribers are deluged with unwanted messages in this way. I thought that spam - junk e-mail, which piles up in lorryloads on your electronic doorstep - must be an inevitable condition of the wired world.Then I discovered that it is not quite as inevitable - at least not in such quantity - as I had thought. Few computer-owners seem to have the problems that we do: several hardcore propositions a day. And those who do have one thing in common: the service provider that they use.

Early in my researches, when I mentioned the problem to a computer-savvy acquaintance, her first clairvoyant question took me aback. "Are you with AOL?" Er, yes, actually. "I thought so." AOL sells itself on its user- friendliness, and is currently marketing itself as being ideal for the first steps on the Net. But it fails to mention its attractiveness to professional spammers, too. As Richard Baguely, deputy editor of Internet magazine, points out: "AOL is a particular target because it has 14 million users."

It would not be an exaggeration to say that AOL appears to be in serious denial on the subject - for understandable reasons. When I first rang AOL's customer support line, I was informed that I must have entered a chat room (no, I hadn't), or posted my name elsewhere on the Web (no, sorry). The AOL press office seemed equally blase. I was proudly informed of the extensive measures that AOL has taken to enable subscribers to block out pornographic and other spam. Broadly, AOL provides two ways of blocking junk e-mail. One involves blocking all messages except from pre-specified addresses - so no surprises from that forgotten friend in Austria, St Austell or Australia. Alternatively, you can specify which addresses you wish to block out. That sounds more promising, except that the spammers are not stupid. They change their addresses constantly, so that by the time you have blocked one, they have already moved house, electronically speaking. AOL has taken a number of spammers to court in the US to protect its subscribers, but still the problem persists.

Software is now on sale which enables spammers to create lists of millions of known addresses. Sometimes, however, they only need to pluck subscribers' names out of the stratosphere. Many spam e-mails are not even addressed to me in the header field. Instead, the main addressee may have an alphabetically similar name - craval, crawf, even crawlyman. Sometimes, the main addressee is a heap of jumbled figures and numbers; g2t3x5, or similar. Either way, it seems that my name is buried deep on the "bcc" list of "blind-copy" addressees, invisible to the person receiving the e-mail. The computer takes alphabetical pot luck: if the addressee exists, then bingo! If the addressee does not exist, then the message is simply bounced back. The sender of the messages is not bothered if millions of cyberporn messages do not get through; some will, and that is all that matters.

Theoretically, you can respond to such e-mails, demanding to be taken off the spammer's list. But few specialists recommend that you do so. As Richard Baguely notes: "It's useful for them to know that this address is genuine, and that the message has been read." Sit tight, say nothing, and hope that they will go away, is generally reckoned to be the best advice.

Powerful new software is said to be on the way which will make it easier to block the spammers. But I am reluctant to wait that long. AOL seems to believe that it has the problem under control. As for me, I've had enough. Sure, AOL has lots of features that make it simple to use. But I am off to quieter pastures, where the spammers may find the pickings less rewarding. In this case, big seems to be ugly. I could do with a bit of cyber-peace at last.