From Spam to Scams: 30 Years of Online Annoyances

By JR Raphael
Contributing Writer, [GAS]

Break out the bubbly: Spam is celebrating its 30th anniversary this weekend. And my oh my, three decades later, how the annoyances of the internet have changed.

Where it all started

The message considered the first unsolicited mass e-mail went out to unsuspecting inboxes on May 3, 1978. A marketing employee at a company called Digital Equipment Corporation (now owned by HP) sent the message to 393 users of the government-run network Arpanet, the predecessor to the internet we know today.

“DIGITAL WILL BE GIVING A PRODUCT PRESENTATION OF THE NEWEST MEMBERS OF THE DECSYSTEM-20 FAMILY; THE DECSYSTEM-2020, 2020T, 2060, AND 2060T…”

Typed in all caps for extra irritation, the email touted two new products being demonstrated in California and invited recipients to see them in action. The guy behind the message, Gary Thuerk, reported immediate negative response to his ad — but also immediate results. He told the Wall Street Journal this week that the email led to $12 million in sales.

How it’s transformed

Nowadays, spam takes up anywhere from 80 to 95 percent of all emails sent. And here’s the amazing part: There are actually idiots out there clicking these ads and sending their money. Internet security firm Sophos was recently quoted as estimating about 10 percent of spam recipients purchase products from the mass mails.

And guess what? Their clicks are costing all of us. Research companies say the wasted bandwidth from spam will add up to $140 billion worldwide this year alone. What’s more, with increasingly sophisticated spamming techniques, tracking and stopping those unwanted ads is proving to be a tricky feat.

In honor of this week’s anniversary, McAfee decided to conduct a little experiment to see just how severe the problem really has become. The anti-virus giant had volunteers spend 30 days surfing the net on completely unprotected computers, with all personal guards down. They answered every email, filled out every form, and responded to every ad. The result? More than 126,000 unsolicited emails, and a lot of problems.

“We started with a brand new computer that was lightning fast. We end with a computer that takes a long time to open even the simplest of webpages and I fear may be tracking every keystroke and page we visit,” one participant wrote in her diary of the experience.

“It multiplies like crazy – like a virus. And it just keeps coming,” noted another participant.

Going beyond spam

Spam’s not the only thing multiplying like a virus on the net. The number of annoying trends trying to take advantage of users has actually become an FBI concern.

The government’s Internet Crime Complaint Center, or IC3, tracks all sorts of schemes and scams moving throughout cyberspace, spam included. Some of the other current hot issues on the watchlist:

  • Auction fraud: Ripping people off with phony sales on sites like eBay. Be wary of sellers using multiple names, using addresses outside of your country, or asking for direct wire transfers of money.
  • Debt elimination: Convincing people to send cash to eliminate all their debt. The IC3 looks for web sites that advertise “legal ways to dispose of mortgage loans and credit card debts.”
  • Work-at-home scams: Getting people to sign up for seemingly easy employment. The IC3 keeps an eye on offers that involve “reselling or reshipping merchandise to destinations outside the United States.” Basically, they’ve found many of these services use a series of fake checks to get you to wire them money – money you’ll never get back.

The list goes on and on and will probably keep growing longer by the year. So is good ol’ Gary Thuerk really to blame for all of this? Depends who you ask. I’ve gotta believe that if he didn’t send that ill-fated message, someone else would have had the idea before long.

His defense, as told to the Wall Street Journal: “If the airline loses your luggage, do you blame the Wright brothers?”

Touché, Thuerk.  Touché.  Still, someone has to be the scapegoat for this sea of annoyance, to act as a recipient of our spam-induced rage.  If I could just find that guy’s email address…

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