Spoutin' Off: Smash spam with 'Boulder Pledge'


By Michael Rau

December 26 2005

Wow. I'm amazed at the generosity that the holiday season elicits.

Why, in the past month alone, I've gotten e-mails apparently sent on behalf of many of America's premier retailers, including Target; Nordstrom; Wal-Mart; Best Buy; eBay; Amazon; Victoria's Secret; Bed, Bath, and Beyond; and Costco. They've all offered me free gift cards and all sorts of other goodies.

I've gotten offers from others for free iPods, XBox 360s, Sony PSPs and other toys.

I can't believe that I haven't jumped on these opportunities. All I have to do is click on one little link and ...

OK, I'm obviously being facetious, and you can probably guess where I'm going with this.

On an average day, I process somewhere about 100 pieces of spam. These include the usual offers of bootleg drugs, watches, software and other sundry paraphernalia.

There are a multitude of requests to verify my account information from banks or credit card providers with which I've never had a connection. Last week, I got one ostensibly from a credit card provider that I actually use. Go figure.

Some days, having to deal with all this digital effluent just makes me cranky. But on other days, some of the efforts make me laugh out loud at their pitiful attempts to suck me into their vortex of lies and deceit.

How many spelling variations can spammers find for Viagra and Rolex? What in the world makes them think that I'm stupid enough to open a suspicious attachment from someone I don't know? (Oh, yeah - I'm sure the notice that I just got, informing me I've won millions in a European lottery, is legitimate.)

I guffaw at such sophomoric attempts to fool me.

And then I realize: Somebody's falling for these scams. Some of us who venture online are responding and thus creating enough incentive for these cretins to keep trying to steal from the rest of us - or, at the least, invade and interfere with our privacy.

Friends, at the risk of being insulting, I have to ask: How can you possibly be so gullible?

A recent study from the National Cyber Security Alliance found that two-thirds of respondents incorrectly identified scam e-mails as legitimate.

Why aren't e-mail users getting this message? The problem and solution were identified more than a decade ago. In all fairness, you certainly can't say the news media haven't reported extensively on it. A search on Google News using the term "phishing" produced about 1,900 hits for the past 30 days alone.

A quick scan of my own files shows that of 2,000 odd e-mails with unsolicited offers I've received this month, about half were for bootleg products - offers for which might or might not be legitimate. Of the rest, I would consider about five in 1,000 to possibly be legitimate. The rest were phishing attacks, virus distributions (sorry, guys - I'm on a Mac) and financial flim-flams.

We have to become smarter about the way that we view commerce on the Web. If I might be so bold, I have a simple idea to share:

NEVER respond to any unsolicited offer that you receive online for anything.

NEVER. Period.

This doesn't mean you can't or shouldn't "opt in" to receive offers from retailers with whom you wish to do business. I do - and often make purchases from those offers.

And maybe some of the offers for bootleg products are actually legitimate. I suppose that some of these outfits really do conduct ostensibly honest transactions, even if their products are grossly illegal. But I'd say that if you're willing to break the law in pursuit of a good deal, you deserve whatever consequences occur as a result of taking the risk.

I postulate that there's no deal, no offer, no contest, no lottery extended unsolicitedly through the Web that's as good as those pitching it make it sound. Assume that it's a scam. Just say, "No."

In the spirit of the holiday season, here's a simple proposal for a New Year's resolution that you can make to forever change everyone's online experience for the better: Take the "Boulder Pledge."

What's that, you say? It goes like this:

"Under no circumstances will I ever purchase anything offered to me as the result of an unsolicited e-mail message. Nor will I forward chain letters, petitions, mass mailings or virus warnings to large numbers of others. This is my contribution to the survival of the online community."

2006 marks the 10th anniversary of the creation of this simple statement. It was written by movie critic and longtime geek Roger Ebert at a conference at the University of Colorado in Boulder. According to its entry on Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boulder_Pledge), it "has established itself as one of the basic principles of the anti-spam community in an attempt to make the sending of e-mail spam less profitable."

What a noble way to start the new year: making a simple pledge to help save the online world from the plague and pestilence of spam.

Michael Rau is a mass-communications consultant in Virginia Beach. To send feedback or view past columns, visit http://dailypress.asoundidea.com.

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