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Damn Spam! 

A descent into a world of organ enlargements, toner cartridges, con men and spam fighters

Page 3 of 5

But why should Internet vigilantes be responsible for policing e-mail? Isn't that what laws are for? Well, so far, Congress has yet to pass any laws regarding spam -- which may be a good thing.

For instance, critics of the proposed CAN-SPAM Act say the bill would do more harm than good. By simply requiring that all unsolicited e-mail include an "opt-out" button, it would effectively legalize spam, undercutting any state or private efforts to ban it.

Others, such as dot-com pioneer Brad Templeton, say that any attempt to regulate spam is a waste of time when you're talking about guys offering drugs without prescriptions.

"Half the people who are spamming are already selling fraudulent products and illegal con schemes," he says.

In other words, if you outlaw spam, only outlaws will send it.

Hormones and Filters
Blame it on HBO, but the hot techno-gadget being hawked in e-mail inboxes this year is the cable de-scrambler. It certainly stands to reason. Since much of America already believes new music should be free, why shouldn't Sex and the City, as well?

Trouble is, these black boxes don't actually, like, work. That is, unless your cable carrier still offers analog cable, which is going the way of the slide rule. Even if your carrier does offer analog cable, using the boxes without paying for the service is, believe it or not, illegal. Although a major record label is unlikely to spend its time hunting you down for swiping songs off a Napster knockoff, your local cable company has grown used to nailing frat boys for splicing into their lines, so it's not likely to cut you any slack if it finds out you've been stealing Pay-Per-View.

Another popular spam offering right now is human growth hormone, often advertised under the headings "Lose weight while you sleep" or "Regain your youth."

Actually, there's a kernel of truth amid the crapola. Since 1990, the medical community has debated the ability of human growth hormone to reverse some of the effects of aging, such as loss of muscle mass and fading energy. Some studies have shown that, combined with sex hormone replacement, growth hormones can help patients lose weight and increase stamina without exercise.

Growth hormone, however, has nothing to do with the junk that spammers are peddling. Actual hormone therapy costs thousands of dollars at pricey clinics; it doesn't come in plastic jugs through the mail and it doesn't sell for $49.99 for a one-month trial supply.

It's ironic that, in the world of spam, pornographers have proven to have the most integrity. More often than not, the subject lines for their messages tell you exactly what you'll find inside. And when you hit the link, you're sent straight to a porn site, as promised. And if you offer up your credit card, you get what you pay for. No bait, no switch.

Which makes sense, when you consider that sex is still the Internet's big money-maker. It's estimated that one-third of all Internet content revenue comes from such sites as "Horny college girls" and "Trannie-a-gogo!" Covering his tracks will do a spammer little good if his e-mail never reaches its intended targets. For that to happen, he must navigate a minefield of spam filters at work within the ISP's mail servers, the e-mail software, even individual PCs.

Keep in mind that, no matter how pathetically spammy an e-mail might appear at first glance, you wouldn't be looking at it now if it hadn't managed to trick the system into thinking it was a legitimate message.

This is where Dr. Paul Judge comes in. As chief technical officer for CipherTrust, an Alpharetta, GA-based network security firm, it's Judge's job to figure out how to block spam in transit so we never see it.

Besides the annoyance factor, defeating spam is an urgent goal, he says, because of the very real hardware costs that the average Netizen isn't aware of until his next rate increase for monthly Internet service.

"If spam accounts for half of all e-mail, then the networks have to double bandwidth and server capacity just to handle the extra volume," he explains.

Judge's team is always on the lookout for new spam detection and filtering programs that can be installed on CipherTrust's main product, IronMail, a hardware server he estimates is used by about 15 percent of the country's Fortune 500 companies.

IronMail also combats viruses and network attacks by hackers, and has been used by clients to catch employees who were sending company secrets to competitors, as well as wise guys who were running side businesses out of their cubes. Yet Judge concedes that spam is the most constant and insidious problem.

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