e-mail: scam@gibberish.com

Idiocy and dishonesty have made the Internet virtually unusable, argues Charles Arthur
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"Hello," read the e-mail. "My name is David Lawitts and I have severe lung and throat cancer due to second-hand smoke. This chain was a final attempt to help solve my problem. For every one person that this letter is sent to, the National Lung and Cancer Association will donate three cents to help me, and other people like me, become healthy again. If you do not pass this letter on, my life and memory will soon both be gone. So please, try to send this to at least 10 people. It is for a good cause."

Are you touched? Do your heartstrings twang a little? Plenty of people's did, judging by the number who seemed to have forwarded that note - and a copy - to an American e-mail address where somebody was "keeping track of the names that have passed this along".

Why then didn't I trust this message beamed across the Internet to my computer last weekend? Why didn't I pass it on to everyone whose e-mail I know? First, because a quick search showed that there's no such thing as the "National Lung and Cancer Association": American Lung Association, yes, American Cancer Society, yes, NLCA, no. Second, because if you have lung and throat cancer, no number of three-cent donations is going to make you healthy again.

So what is that message about? It's either some weird revenge, or else it's a scam, intended to collect as many addresses as possible of soft- hearted and soft-headed Internet users.

My money's on the second option. Scams such as this demonstrate to me how the Internet is rapidly becoming unusable. In the past couple of years, as well as attracting big businesses, it has dragged in the smallest of businesses - the grifters, conmen and liars who want to make a quick buck. P T Barnum, the circus ringmaster who insisted "There's one born every minute", would love it.

Here's how another e-mail, entitled "Read this twice!!" began: "My name is Christopher Erickson. Two years ago, the corporation I worked at for the past 12 years down-sized and my position was eliminated. After unproductive job interviews, I decided to open my own business. Over the past year, I incurred many unforeseen financial problems. I owed my family, friends, and creditors over $35,000 [pounds 24,500]."

It goes on to detail how you can become a multi-millionaire by sending off $5 to 10 addresses, which will forward your address to 10 addresses. I didn't need to read it twice. It's so obviously a pyramid scheme that I'm amazed if anyone takes it up, even with its sign-off, which reads: "Do you have any idea what 11,700 $5 bills ($58,500) look like piled up on a kitchen table? It's awesome." First, I'd need a kitchen table; and also, you couldn't bank that money. You'd be arrested as a suspected drug dealer.

Yet people do believe it - especially teenagers. And tomorrow September begins, which is the cue for Net veterans (those who have been using it longer than a year) to groan. September means a new intake of students at US universities. They will receive free Internet accounts, and many are so naive that they read the Christopher Erickson tale and believe it is true, and that it will work for them. Consequently, every September the Net is plagued with daft schemes like this (some as simple as the "send $5 to the addresses on this list, then send this out again putting your name at the bottom of the list"). All are blatantly illegal.

I wish that before American students were given their Internet log on and password, they had to pass a written test on the recent history of Albania (where civil war was sparked by the collapse of a pyramid savings scheme) and the case of Barlow Clowes, for which Peter Clowes was sent to prison. It might be useful if everyone who wanted an Internet connection had to pass that sort of test. Quite a few might fail. I wouldn't complain.

When the Internet was opened up from academia to everyone in 1994, it was meant to herald an open road, the sort of thing the billionaire Bill Gates espouses, where communication would become easier and we would all benefit: the costs of transmitting data would fall, buyers could meet sellers more rapidly, and Usenet - the thousands of discussion groups on everything from Alaska to Zebedee, via sex, Star Trek and most imaginable hobbies - would allow nation to speak unto nation. The sum of human knowledge would be there.

Unfortunately it turns out that the sum of human idiocy is greater, and growing exponentially with the number of people signed up to the Net, now in tens of millions. Knowledge is rapidly being submerged beneath a tide of pre-millennial stupidity. The Net is a swell place if you want a picture of Jupiter from Nasa's web site. But if you're buying something from a web site, watch out - the (American) company involved will probably grab your e-mail address and sell it to other companies. Or if you post a message in a discussion group - say, one about breast cancer or childcare or lace-making or urban legends - then there will be somebody, somewhere in the US with a software program that will siphon off your address, and use it to send you e-mails suggesting you visit a sex site. ("Loads of hot, steamy, horny, free pics!" said the most recent). Or apply for a credit card which - unlike credit cards issued by reputable banks - requires no credit checks. All you have to supply is your bank details.

Suspicious yet? Or take part in a lottery in Australia offering "big prizes". And if you try to complain that you didn't want this, or don't like your children getting stuff like that, you'll find the e-mail address is faked. The miscreants are invisible, untouchable.

Annoying? Just a little: this week I have received 50 such e-mails - all useless, many illegal or dubious. Even more annoying is that unlike normal junk mail where the sender pays, with junk e-mail it's the receiver who pays for the telephone connection time (which can be substantial: some junk is hundreds of lines long), and the hard disk space. The senders insist that it's just an extension of marketing, that they're using the capacity of the medium. Odd, then, that of more than 300 junk e-mails I've received in the past year, not one offered a service I was interested in. I'm beginning to wonder whether it's worth using Usenet, or letting any but a select number know my e-mail, or leaving it on web pages where it can be grabbed by shysters who hope that I'm a dolt.

The Direct Marketing Association (DMA) in the UK took a small step towards improving matters last week by starting a register - the "E-mail Preference Service" - which, like its mail counterpart, will let you register to indicate you don't want to receive such stuff.

The problem is policing. If the sender isn't a member of the DMA, the recipient has no legal remedy. The messages from "Christopher Erickson" (who, weirdly, has been putting out his message at least since December) will keep on coming. So I'll use the Internet less and less, if that's the price of not being hassled. But there are people who believe the Christopher Ericksons - just as there are those who think that David Lawitts and the NLCA exist. Well, surveys show that plenty of Americans believe in angels; perhaps they reckon the fairies are donating those three cents.