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Information Technology Services
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Spam

If you're like most people, you've experienced a dramatic increase in Unsolicited Commercial E-mail (UCE) you get in your e-mail, otherwise known as "spam". You are not alone. Almost everyone is receiving these usually undesired messages.

About spam

Sometimes it seems that as much as half (and often more) of the e-mail you receive is "junk" - advertisements from people you don't know trying to sell you something you don't want. The practice of sending UCE, or "spamming", has become a cottage industry on the Internet. There are "get-rich-quick" schemes promising people that if they just pay some sum of money for "millions of verified active e-mail addresses", they can sit back and mass-mail a message to millions of people in hopes that some percentage of them will click on a link in their message, guaranteeing them "easy money." There are large mass-marketing spammers whose sole business is to send millions of messages, expecting only a fraction of a percent of the recipients to respond - but enough to make a profit. Spammers don't care if only a fraction of a percentage of the recipients actually respond -- they'll happily annoy millions of us just to get a thousand responses. Unfortunately, this is relatively inexpensive to do, compared to sending paper advertisements via postal mail, and thousands are doing it. Some estimates are that spam now accounts for one third to one half of all Internet e-mail, costing people time, and businesses and e-mail providers (including Winthrop) uncalculated amounts of money in the form of server storage space, Internet link capacity, and lost productivity.

According to the Hormel website describing SPAM® Lunchean Meat, "Use of the term "SPAM" was adopted as a result of the Monty Python skit in which a group of Vikings sang a chorus of "SPAM, SPAM, SPAM . . . " in an increasing crescendo, drowning out other conversation. Hence, the analogy applied because UCE was drowning out normal discourse on the Internet."

Businesses and universities, including Winthrop, are using various means to cope with and reduce the amount of spam that is delivered to users' mailboxes. These measures range from filters, to real-time black hole lists, and commercial anti-spam appliances that more aggressively attempt to block spam. None of these methods is 100% effective, and if the measures are too "aggressive", they may also stop legitimate messages. Unfortunately, machines cannot yet "read" an e-mail message or "view" a photo and accurately discern whether or not a message would be considered spam by its intended recipient.

When you receive a spam message, it is usually best to simply ignore it and delete it. It is generally not a good idea to click on any part of the message, or follow any web link. Keep the following points in mind:

  • Nothing is free. No matter what the message says, there is always a catch. There is no such thing as free music, movies, clothing, or porn. Nobody is going to spend money to buy your e-mail address and send you a message in order to give you something at a loss.
  • You are not the only one with that "exclusive" unique prize claim number. Everybody on our e-mail system got that same "special" claim number!
  • Nothing in a bottle will safely make any part of your anatomy, male or female, larger or more attractive to the opposite sex.
  • You are no more "pre-approved" for that credit card than anyone else - we're all pre-approved for that card with the low "teaser" interest rate that shoots up to a ridiculous rate shortly after we receive it.
  • There is no way to effectively count how many times an email has been forwarded.  Microsoft will not donate money to a poor sick child for forwarding a message a bazillion times.
  • The reply-to address on a spam message is often fake or forged. You might even receive a spam message designed to look like it came from your own mailbox.

How did they get your e-mail address? They probably bought it from someone else. There are numerous "companies" who scan the Internet looking for actively used e-mail accounts.

  • They pay people some amount of money for each working e-mail address they find and submit.
  • They buy and consolidate various lists of addresses.
  • They write "robot" programs that "surf" the Internet, looking for and collecting "mailto" links on web pages.
  • They buy addresses from sites that ask you to volunteer your e-mail address. Sign up for "free joke-of-the-day" -- get added to a list. Sign up for "free porn" -- get added to a list.
  • They monitor chat rooms.
  • They simply try every likely name followed by many common e-mail sites, for example: doej@hotmail.com, doej@yahoo.com, doej@winthrop.edu, doej@aol.com, etc. Then they collect addresses from all the messages that DON'T bounce back with "address unknown".

That's the problem. The rest of this document explains what we are doing about it, and what you can do.


What Winthrop does to reduce the spam in your mail

The University's e-mail server performs a "mild" filtering for spam messages. The mechanism is not very aggressive, as we don't want to prevent legitimate messages from getting through. While the filters do stop thousands of spam messages a day from getting through, thousands more get past the filters, some of which may be delivered to your account. Note that this does not mean that the University in any way approves of or endorses the spam messages you receive. The University merely tries to reduce the amount of spam you receive where possible, while trying not to block legitimate messages.

If you wish to use more rigorous filtering on your mailbox, you can use processing rules available in your email client to filter out more spam than the university filters.  If you need assistance applying your own processing rules or using the rules wizard, please contact the User Support Helpdesk at x2400, option 4. [Note:  It is not recommended that you use the "block sender" function unless you are certain you are blocking the appropriate sender.  Most modern spam messages forge the return address.  If you are not careful, you could end up blocking a legitimate sender that you wish to communicate with.]

If you receive particularly offensive or annoying spam messages, you may want to consider forwarding examples to helpdesk@winthrop.edu. If possible, we may try to adjust the e-mail system's spam filters to try to catch the messages. Spam filtering is an inexact science, and the spammers are continually finding new ways to get spam through systems that filter it, such as ours. We cannot guarantee that we will be successful at stopping messages that you forward to us, and not all messages can be filtered.

The University's on-line e-mail directory limits the number of "hits" that it will return on a search. This prevents spammers from easily "dumping" the University's e-mail addresses.

The University does not provide your e-mail address to non-University entities.

The University, by policy, limits the number of "mass" e-mails sent to the "allstudents" list. In general, students will receive no more than one "mass" e-mail from the University per day. 

Some departments within the University also maintain mailing lists of enrolled students, and may send messages of interest to them.


What you can do to reduce spam in your mail

Don't click on the links in the spam message - just delete the message. Most of the links contained in these messages are designed to transmit a serial number back to the spammer so that they'll know that your e-mail mailbox is "live" and being accessed. The spammer then sells your e-mail address to other spammers as a "premium active" address! You'll start getting even more spam!

Don't click the "unsubscribe" link at the end of the message, if it contains one. While some have reported positive results by doing so, in general, it only gets you off of ONE copy of whatever mailing list at ONE spammer (if they honor your removal request at all), and at worst, an unscrupulous spammer will now know that your e-mail mailbox is "live" and being accessed, and may then sell your e-mail address to other spammers as a "premium active" address, and you'll start getting even more spam!

Don't REPLY to messages from spammers angrily demanding to be removed from their list -- it only confirms to them that your address is active, and you may start getting even more spam! Besides, spam rarely comes from the same place twice -- the spammers routinely change their "site" so that if you follow their "unsubscribe" instructions, they can claim they have removed you from that list, but they'll just pop up with a different address and list, with you still on it. And, they'll sell your "premium active" e-mail address to other spammers!

Avoid providing your e-mail address to "free" services on the Internet. Many of these "free" sites make a portion of their income collecting and selling e-mail addresses to spammers! If you MUST have access to such a site, consider obtaining a separate, free e-mail account at a site such as Yahoo! or Hotmail just for such use. Then you can just log into that account once in a while and mass delete all of the messages in it, as all the resulting spam will go there instead of to your Winthrop mailbox.

Avoid providing or stating your e-mail address in chat rooms. Consider using a separate Yahoo! or Hotmail account for such purposes if you must.

Don't provide your e-mail address on product warranty cards, etc. Do you really want the toaster oven company to start sending you messages about their latest electric can openers?

Portions of the above text were written by David Kelley at the University of Hartford and adapted for publication at Winthrop University with permission.
 

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