Spam’s Assault Going Beyond Annoying E-Mail

Times Staff Writer

Within weeks of Ed Harwood’s fatal motorcycle crash, the memorial website for the charismatic copywriter from England who called himself “Fatso” was filled with hundreds of remembrances.

Wayne from La Manga, Spain, reminisced about Harwood belting out “I Will Survive” like a pub singer. Jeanie from London described him as “a big bear of a man with a rib-crushing hug and bone-rattling laugh.” His wife, Penny, chronicled spreading his ashes on the Caribbean beach where they had married and sending white balloons into the sunset.

And automated “spambots” littered the memorial page with as many as 15 ads a day for cellphone ring tones and online casinos, to the horror of his family and friends.


Despite legislative efforts from Sacramento to Washington, spam is expanding into such diverse areas as Internet bulletin boards, instant messaging programs, Web logs and cellphones. It’s not just for computer in-boxes anymore.

And as more people access e-mail on mobile devices, spam is following them on the road, where it feels more intrusive and harder to cope with.

It’s impossible to catalog the size of the market for products sold through spam, but the best guess is that it’s in the billions of dollars.

“It’s like water flowing down a hill -- you try to block it, and it just flows elsewhere,” said Doug Peckover, co-founder of Privacy Inc., an anti-spam software company in Dallas.

The Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Assn. is compiling a directory of about 75% of the 163 million mobile phones in the United States. Critics say the database will make it easier for marketers to bombard phones with text messages as they do in Asia and Europe, where full-featured handsets are more widespread and text messaging is more common.

About half of all European mobile phone users have received text message ads, according to Cambridge, Mass.-based research firm Forrester Research. Alison Wenham is one of them. Cellphone spam keeps her up at night.


The chief executive of the Assn. of Independent Music in Britain often gets text messages hawking “free holidays, vouchers and all sorts of other goodies” if she’ll only call the phone number provided.

The messages set her phone ringing at 4 a.m., rousing her from slumber in fear that it’s her children in trouble.

“You get up because you think it’s urgent,” Wenham said.

California law prohibits sending unsolicited commercial text messages to cellphones. But most of the junk e-mail sent across the Internet is from spammers who ignore the rules, so laws may not do much good. And major advertisers are trying to work within the laws to send more text messages.

Using AT&T; Wireless, viewers of the Fox TV show “American Idol” this season sent 13.5 million text messages to vote for their favorite singers or enter sweepstakes related to the series.

The mobile carrier, based in Redmond, Wash., began sending them invitations for more “American Idol” sweepstakes, text-messaging rate plans and games related to the show.

AT&T; Wireless spokesman Jeremy Pemble said the company was sensitive to concerns about wireless spam. It limits messages to things customers have expressed interest in and allows removal from text-message marketing lists. It doesn’t charge for incoming messages or for “unsubscribe” requests.


“They’ve basically raised their hand and said, ‘I’m interested in “American Idol” content,’ ” he said. “It’s a very effective marketing tool. What it is not is an open invitation for other companies or ourselves to blast random text messages to our customer base.”

With federal laws clamping down on telemarketing and e-mail ads, marketers are looking for new ways to pitch their products, including such old-school methods as stopping people in shopping malls.

“The direct-marketing industry is throwing the spaghetti up against the wall and seeing what sticks,” said Tim Searcy, executive director of the American Teleservices Assn., a trade group in Indianapolis that has fought the federal government’s popular “do-not-call” list.

E-mail was seen as the next great hope for marketers, but spamming hucksters have overrun it. More than 60% of e-mail traffic is believed to be spam.

That’s trouble for people with mobile devices like the BlackBerry e-mail pager that act as portable extensions of the PC in-box.

The trunk of Kevin Jacques’ BMW helped give him some peace from the spammers. The venture capitalist with Sevin Rosen Funds in Dallas had his BlackBerry set to vibrate every time a message arrived.


But it would buzz all night as junk e-mail poured in. His wife made him keep the device in his car at night and on weekends until anti-spam software dramatically reduced the flow.

If only Todd Dagres had as much luck with spam filters. A venture capitalist with Battery Ventures who splits his time between Massachusetts and Hollywood, Dagres has used a BlackBerry for about five years.

About 50 junk e-mails a day slip past his anti-spam software. For a device that he got to improve productivity, it consumes a lot of his time as he peers at the small screen and sifts through the spam.

“It’s much more annoying on a mobile device than it is on the desktop,” he said. “It’s a real productivity hog, and it’s getting worse and worse.”

Spam also is invading instant-messaging programs like those offered by America Online Inc. and Yahoo Inc.

Known as “spim,” instant-messaging spam is expected to triple to 1.2 billion messages this year from 400 million in 2003, according to Radicati Group Inc., a Palo Alto research and consulting firm.


Still, spim is easier to control than e-mail spam. The e-mail system makes it easier to send messages en masse because spammers can harvest e-mail addresses from the Internet or try any combination of letters and numbers in hopes of a hit. Instant-message users can exert more control over who contacts them by limiting the receipt of new messages to people on their buddy lists.

Although spim is “significantly on the rise,” it still constitutes only 5% to 8% of all instant messages sent to corporations, said Paul Ritter, an analyst with Yankee Group, a Boston research firm.

“I don’t expect there will be a tipping point where the majority of IMs going back and forth will be spam,” Ritter said.

But marketers are finding Web pages an easy target for spam.

Comment spam, as it’s known, is only partly intended to get people to click on the advertisements. Marketers are also trying to fool search engines -- which use the number of websites linking to another website as one factor in their rankings -- into bumping the marketers’ sites higher on the list.

Keeping spammers away from message boards has been a problem for years, and one that website developers and analysts say is getting worse.

“Links are the currency of the Web now if you want to do well with a search engine,” said Mike Grehan, an online marketer in Newcastle, England, who runs Harwood’s memorial site. That’s why spammers “go for this brute-force exercise.”


To some Web logs, which have become popular at least in part because of how easy they are to post comments on, it’s devastating.

“The comment spam is overwhelming,” UC Berkeley professor John Battelle wrote this month on his blog about Internet search. “I can’t keep up.”

Search engines crawl the billions of Web pages that make up the Internet to pull information into their indexes. Comment-spamming programs, known as spambots, crawl the Web to place commercial messages whenever they find a website that accepts postings from visitors.

Those spambots quickly tracked down Harwood’s memorial site.

Not long after his funeral, Harwood’s widow sent e-mail to Grehan complaining that ads were appearing among the remembrances.

“It didn’t seem rational why a human being would go post advertisements on a memorial site for her dead husband,” he said.

Grehan, author of “Search Engine Marketing: The Essential Best Practice Guide,” explained that it wasn’t human beings sullying Harwood’s memory, but explanations didn’t matter. Soon he was clearing 15 advertisements a day from the site.


He moved the website twice, hoping to avoid the spammers.

Last summer, he gave up. Harwood’s friends now must e-mail Grehan if they want to post their favorite stories.

“It doesn’t matter what I do -- it’s going to be found somehow,” he said. “The spam problem is huge because people can only see dollar signs.”


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