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Happy birthday, spam! On what 35 years of spam has gotten us

A computer screen inbox displaying unsolicited emails known as 'spam.'

For the past few weeks I've been getting emails from a woman named Adriana, who has some big news. 

First, she and her boyfriend broke up about three months ago, and although I never met him, I can certainly sympathize.

Also, she's moving "RIGHT EFFING NEAR" me and wants to know if I can help her find a bartending job. 

Adriana's emails are, of course, spam. They're routed to a folder in my Yahoo account that has messages with alluring titles like, "I thought you might be interested in this." And I am. I really am. I didn't start using email until my first semester of college and it has taken me years to resist the temptation of those messages. 

This week marks the 35th anniversary of the first spam mail -- when marketing manager Gary Thuerk of the now defunct Digital Equipment Corporation, sent out a mass email to around 400 people on ARPANET - an early version of the internet. Thuerk was trying to get people interested in a new computer model; instead he ticked people off. 

Who is Adriana?

To mark the anniversary, I spent an afternoon trying to track Adriana down to determine who -- or what -- she is. I didn't get a response. I emailed a few more of my spammers, and nothing. None of them seemed to want to talk.

(We don't recommend you do this, lest you really want to get more spam. But all in the name of journalism.)

"Maybe because they're on the other side of the world, you'll get a reply tomorrow," said a sympathetic Simms Jenkins, the CEO of BrightWave Marketing and author of "The Truth About Email Marketing" and The New Inbox. "

 "Everyone thinks about the Nigerian princes of the world," Jenkins said, referring to a now-familiar scam, and adding that those types of spammers aren't just in Nigeria.

But he said there's a sneakier side to spamming, in which clicking on a link can expose your keystrokes, passwords and personal information. He couldn't formally advise me on how to proceed if I recieve a response from Adriana, though he said if I was one of his parents, he'd advise me to delete the email. 

The happier side of spam

I learned something else in the course of my search. I receive very little email spam (for reasons no one could explain) so a colleague suggested I look in my Facebook spam folder. I'd not even realized I had one. 

Inside, I found dozens of messages from people I know. One is a young Egyptian activist whom I met while reporting on a protest outside of Egypt's Ministry of Defense last summer. We spent an entire day together, dashing back and forth along the front line.  I gave her my name, but in the chaos of the day, I lost her phone number. I tried to find her for months afterward -- asking other student activists if they knew a green-eyed psychology major named Hadeel. I discovered today that on the day we met, Hadeel sent me a message on Facebook. 

She said simply, "It's Hadeel from Abassiya Square protests."

I have always thought of spam folders as protection -- a way of avoiding messages that aren't of any use. In retrospect, I find it a little weird that my inboxes are making my mind up for me.

About the author

Noel King is a reporter for Marketplace's Wealth and Poverty desk.
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Hi Noel,

Depending on the numbers you read and believe, nearly 70% of all email traffic on the internet is spam. Pingdom puts spam volume around 68.8% for 2012 and 89.1% for the year prior. Yeah, 9 out of 10 messages received by a mailbox provider such as Yahoo! or Gmail are complete nonsense at best and active attacks at worst.

As Stephanie points out above, email has been used to proliferate all kinds of malicious viruses, people have lost vast sums of money through scams, such as the 419 scam (nigerian princes) you mention. The fact that a single piece of email winds up in your spam folder, at Facebook, or another domain is the cost of doing business.

Companies like Return Path, IBM's Email Optimization, 250 OK and others measure the success of legitimate email's ability to land in the inbox. Marketers refer to this as the 'deliverability' rate. The average, accepted deliverability rate is around 83% depending on who you reference, this means that of the 30% of legitimate mail that is sent on the internet, only 4/5ths of it arrives to the intended recipient on a regular basis.

Spam is not cute, spam is not fun, spam is a travesty and makes life for companies and individuals a nightmare. The mailbox providers and ISPs of this world have their work cut out for them. Much of the black box spam we associate with pornography, nigerian scams etc, is caught, most of it. However, there's stuff that's socially engineered and tested like legitimate marketing message and this slips through the front line defenses. There's so much fraudulent email floating about that the legitimate messages from our friends, trusted brands etc. are collateral damage in the global fight to curtail the badness.

I know the content seems fluffy, but there's nothing fluffy about the intent of spammers, phishers and people spreading malware on the internet, nothing at all. Electronic fraud funds criminal organizations that actively defraud unsuspecting victims, run guns, drugs, engage in human trafficking and violence.

What has spam gotten us? Embroiled in a 35 year long digital battle with no real end in sight. That's the truth about spam.

Best,
-Len
@LenShneyder

Noel,

It's really important to emphasize that while you may find something of value in your spam folder (which you did in your Facebook inbox), it's NEVER a good idea to reply to a message from a sender you don't recognize, or to click on any attachments - regardless of sender, even if it's your mother.

Spam is at best a big nuisance, but at worst a way that computer viruses get spread. There is nothing good to celebrate about spam after 35 years, except for the fact that mailbox providers like Yahoo! and Gmail have gotten a whole lot smarter and more effective at blocking the really bad stuff. That technical solution protects us all. We don't even see most of the spam on the Internet - it gets blocked before it even reaches our mailboxes.

No legitimate marketer will ever ask you to share your log in credentials via email. Never. If you see that sort of request, click the Report Spam button or delete it immediately.

DMA offers help to consumers who want to manage their marketing mailing lists, through our DMAChoice.org service.

Thanks,
Stephanie
VP, Member Communications DMA
@stephanieSAM

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