Editorial: Spam's Most Wanted

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"Get the Iraqi 'Most-Wanted' Deck of Playing Cards. Only $5.95 a Set!" Who didn't get at least one (OK, make it 10) of these e-mails in the past week or two? Yes, just lots more spam to add to the prescription-free Viagra, cheap mortgage rates, free pay-per-view TV, penis-enlargement treatments and countless other unwanted e-mails flooding our in-boxes. Could someone please fix the spam problem before it completely ruins legitimate e-mail marketing?

This week's Federal Trade Commission spam forum isn't going to provide all of the answers, though the fireworks will be interesting to watch as people from both extremes of the debate gather for the first time. The answer also isn't in Sens. Conrad Burns' and Ron Wyden's CAN-SPAM bill, which probably will fly through Congress with universal support this year. The legislation would require spammers to let recipients opt out of messages and would impose penalties for those who use fake return addresses and misleading subject lines. Marketers outline several of the bill's shortcomings, including that it doesn't treat pornographic e-mailers differently and that it doesn't differentiate between bulk and single e-mails.

Another big problem is that CAN-SPAM -- just like any other government legislation -- can only be enforced on U.S. companies. And so much spam already comes from outside the United States, or will be moved offshore once legislation like this gets passed. Think of another recent spate of e-mails, this one a twist on the passé Nigerian ones: Iraqi landowner Farouk Al-Bashar wants to get his family's money out of Baghdad for fear of it being lost in a bombing raid on the capital.

Sadly, direct marketers doing their business properly haven't learned how to separate themselves from the true spammers. As a result, their legitimate messages are getting lumped in with the bad, while response rates drop because it's easier to just delete, delete, delete. ... So, is the solution somewhere between congressional legislation and federal enforcement? Is it a spam filter or other technology that will block the unwanted e-mails from entering while allowing legitimate ones to pass? Or maybe a copyrighted haiku that gets added to every e-mail? A confluence of all the above? With predictions saying that spam will soon represent more than 90 percent of all e-mails, someone had better come up with a fix -- and quick.


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