For The Anti-Spammers, It's All-Out E-War

Courant Staff Writer

Martin Roth's computer erupts with the sound of gunfire whenever it detects and kills incoming spam. Each shot is another small victory in his battle against junk e-mailers.

"They've ruined my Internet," said Roth, a self-employed computer consultant. "It wasn't like this in the beginning and I'm not going to take it."

Roth, graying but fit at 59, fights spam from a tidy, second-floor office in his raised-ranch home just a block from Long Island Sound.

Computer equipment and rows of PC manuals line the desk and shelf space in his office, where Roth sits dressed in jeans and a sweat shirt, scanning through piles of e-mail.

He devotes hours here each week as a volunteer member of SWAT, the Spam Wranglers Action Team, hunting for spammers and trying to shut them down. His aim: an Internet where you only get the commercial e-mail you asked for.

The Foot Soldiers

In cyberspace, where junk e-mails circulate by the billions, people such as Roth are the foot soldiers in the escalating war against spam.

Some belong to anti-spam groups. Others work alone. But all share a common disgust with unsolicited e-mails that tout everything from get-rich-quick schemes to pornography.

Most Americans respond to the tide of junk e-mail by waiting for government action, by looking for technological fixes or by relying on JHD - "just hit delete."

But so far, passive resistance hasn't worked. Rather, it's been the anti-spammers - using a combination of modern software tools and old-fashioned community activism - who can claim some measure of success in the spam wars.

Savvy And Passionate

Numbering perhaps a few hundred to a few thousand, the most committed anti-spammers are both technically savvy and passionate about junk-free e-mail.

They congregate in Internet discussion groups, trading news, swapping strategies and crowing about their success in getting spammers booted offline. In between, they complain to every Internet provider who will listen, demanding the termination of spammer accounts.

"P.T. Barnum was right; there is a sucker born every minute and the spammers are out there looking for them," said one activist who goes by the online moniker "Frederick the Amateur Spam-killer."

Like many in the anti-spam movement, Frederick prefers the cover of anonymity, saying he's been harassed and threatened by spammers, whom he regards as thieves and rip-off artists.

"They are every fly-by-night artist that ever wanted to place a tiny little ad in the newspaper and get away with it," Frederick said. "I have yet to see one legitimate product advertised in an e-mail that I didn't ask for."

Another anti-spammer, who likewise asked that his real name not be used, said he's driven by a feeling that spammers are trampling on his right to be left alone.

"I pay for my Internet service and I believe I have a right to some privacy to enjoy that service," said the activist, a Texas man who runs a website called Spamjamr. "But spam makes it very difficult to do that."

Martin Roth aims to solve the spam problem by educating spammers about proper e-mail marketing practices. But to educate them, he first has to find them.

Weapons At The Ready

Sitting in his home office on a recent weekday, Roth interrupts his computer consulting work to take up his regular anti-spam duty.

He starts by looking through some 2,800 fresh samples of junk e-mail collected by a nonprofit group called the Mail Abuse Prevention System, which created the SWAT team.

"'Build your muscles fast.' 'You're paying too much for your mortgage,'" said Roth, reading a few of the subject lines. "Look at all this crap. It's endless."

But Roth has weapons at the ready. His office is fully equipped with computers and a high-speed Internet hookup.

With practiced ease, Roth launches software tools with names such as "SpamCop," "SpamKiller" and "Sam Spade." These, along with multiple online accounts, help Roth comb through the junk e-mail pile for clues to the spammers' identity.

Many messages are ignored. Roth, for example, quickly discards a spam message written in Spanish and originating from South America as simply not worth the time and effort to complain about.

But others, such as spam messages that appear to have been sent by an Internet newcomer, may present a better opportunity. A rookie spammer may fail to disguise headers and return addresses, create an amateurish sales pitch or promote a common multilevel marketing scheme.

"Here's a guy maybe you can educate," Roth said, pointing to one such message among the scores before him.

Summoning it to his screen, Roth takes a few moments to study the cryptic headers on the e-mail that reveal where it originated and the path it took across the Internet. Though some of these details can be forged or masked, Internet newcomers are unlikely to know how to do so.

After that, Roth consults "Sam Spade," a software program named for Dashiell Hammett's famed fictional detective. The free program makes it easy to query various databases to determine which Internet provider the spammer is sending through.

With that information in hand, Roth then reports the abuse and asks that the spammer be cut off. Many Internet providers will comply, since the sending of spam is usually prohibited by their own user policies. Providers that don't comply could face the prospect of being added to the blacklist of companies that support spamming.

Blacklisting is perhaps the most potent weapon in the anti-spam arsenal. Many Internet providers refuse to accept any e-mail originating from a blacklisted provider.

The result is a kind of banishment or shunning that anti-spammers hope will prompt so many complaints from other customers that the offending provider will be forced to cut off the spammer.

"The Net is really all about sharing. When you cut somebody off, that's a pretty bad step," Roth said.

Other anti-spam groups and individuals are taking different approaches to the junk e-mail problem.

Spamhaus, an anti-spam group based in England, believes in knowing the enemy. It works to compile histories of the people who send spam and then tries to block e-mail originating from the biggest offenders using a blacklist of its own.

"It's become really apparent that 90 percent of all the spam sent in North America is all being sent by only about 100 to 150 spammers," said Steve Linford, who founded Spamhaus and heads it.

SPEWS, the Spam Prevention Early Warning System, maintains a separate blacklist that it updates whenever it detects a wave of junk e-mail originating from a particular Internet provider.

Still others employ more direct and aggressive tactics, such as giving spammers a taste of their own handiwork by sending streams of unwanted messages back to them or by sending e-mails with large file attachments that clog return e-mailboxes.

Despite these efforts, spam has continued to grow wildly. But most anti-spammers believe they're making a difference.

"Absent the efforts of everybody from the lone anti-spammers to the people in organizations like us, the amount of spam people would get would be exponentially higher," said John Mozena, spokesman for the Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial E-Mail, representing 50,000 Internet users against junk e-mail.

"People are going out there and tracking it back down to the source," Mozena said. "Without that constant fight, things would be a lot, lot, lot worse."

Fast And Cheap

Roth, who worked for more than 30 years as a marketing researcher, understands why merchants are drawn to advertise via e-mail. It's fast, it's cheap and it's direct.

But that doesn't give spammers the right to send commercial e-mails to any address they can discover, Roth said, adding that unsolicited commercial e-mail is much more intrusive than junk mail sent through the postal system.

"It's really theft of services. It uses my connection, my equipment and my in-box, which I pay for," Roth said. "With postal mail, the sender pays for it. With spam e-mail, the receiver pays for it. Big difference."

Moreover, junk e-mail tends to be sprayed indiscriminately. Men get advertisements for breast implants. Women get ads for penile enhancements. Children get ads for X-rated websites.

Roth's dream is to see e-mail advertising sent only to those who have specifically agreed in advance to receive it. And consumers should have to confirm their willingness so their names aren't added fraudulently to mailing lists.

"I've learned that you don't just delete the e-mail. That doesn't stop it," Roth said. "You have to find out who sent it and report it to the provider."

As he speaks, Roth's computer erupts with the sound of gunfire once more. Roth smiles broadly.

"Got another one," he said.

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