Junk e-mailers weave tangled web

Junk e-mailers weave tangled web

One of the real problems with junk e-mail is that it is likely to leave all forms of marketing on the Internet with a bad name. The more copies of do-not-mail responses to junk e-mail I receive, the more it seems that junk e-mail is becoming the modern day version of the snake oil business. They may not all be scams, but so far none seems to stand up to much scrutiny, as we'll see by following a few of the threads I've unravelled so far.

One of the first things I noticed in the junk e-mail that readers sent me was that many had received virtually the same message from several different people touting the over-the-counter stock of an organisation that we will call Company X.

"The company has a strong book value," the message read after citing a buy recommendation that has supposedly been issued on the stock by an investor newsletter. "The short sellers need to cover. This looks like a good situation to me. What do you think?" The message referred the recipient to a Web site for more information about the stock and then offered to let the reader "terminate from my Investment Opportunities" by replying to an e-mail address with a remove request.

Readers, none of whom had requested any investment information, reported that their remove requests had bounced back, and several received additional copies of the original message. What was particularly odd was that not only did the copies I saw originate from a variety of e-mail addresses, but they weren't even all signed by the same investment tipster. Some were signed by a man who gave a US phone number; others by a different individual with another US number, but they were otherwise identical.

I got no call back from the first number, but the second did produce the person listed in the message. He claimed that, as a favour, he had allowed Company X to put his name on the message several months ago, but after being flooded with nasty phone calls insisted they drop his name and number from the message. The point of the e-mail, he said, was to get people to visit the company's Web site, where presumably visitors would be convinced that it was a good investment.

As of this writing, I haven't been able to speak to a representative of Company X or of the newsletter that purportedly recommends it. It's hard to believe a legitimate company would find it worthwhile to employ online hucksters or that anybody would fall for them. But how do we get them to stop sending the junk e-mail?

I don't want to identify the companies that are using junk e-mail for fear that the publicity will work to their advantage, but at some point I may identify this one, or the newsletter that's recommending it, if it appears that's the way to get it to stop.

An even more outrageous practice is one that the purveyor of a $US10 software utility has been trying. Not a junk e-mailer per se, he advertises his product by posting his advertisement to every newsgroup he can find. (Of course, that's the way a lot of junk e-mailers got their start, so he might graduate to e-mail any day.) Naturally, the newsgroup participants complained and demanded he not post any more, so he recently sent out a message to newsgroup moderators offering to cease his posting to any newsgroup that will pay him a $US95 annual fee.

With a little research, I managed to track down the software product's owner, whose first name is Hector. "That was a joke," Hector said of his request for $95. "I'm just trying to find a way to keep them from cancelling my posts; that's why I put that little threatening notice there."

Hector claimed that no-one has actually sent him the $95 but that the response he has received from the 25,000 newsgroups he posts to is pretty good: "You have to deal with the flame mail, but I guess that's just the price you pay. Selling through newsgroups is the cheapest way to advertise; it's sure better than placing an advertisement in a print publication."

Oh, oh. This man has to be stopped, although I must say I actually liked Hector a lot more than any of the other "spam artists" I've encountered in the last few weeks. He may be a crook, but at least he's a straightforward and honest crook. We'll see if that can be said about some of the other junk e-mailers.

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