Another View: One man's battle against porn spam

Walt Houser

Every day I get the most disgusting e-mail. If a colleague posted this crud on a cubicle wall, the harassment suits would fly. Yet, thousands of federal employees are subjected to a daily onslaught of filth or the promise of filth. I have complained to my management, getting sympathy and renditions of their similar complaints. But nothing is done.

What can one do about pornographic spam? Of course, delete the messages. Opening the cleverly disguised ones confirms the validity of your address. HTML messages set cookies and report to the spammer, 'Here is another good address.'

Microsoft Outlook's preview function triggers these alerts and cookies, confirming an address even if you delete without opening it. Typically, the unsubscribe links are bogus, used to confirm the validity of the e-mail address.

Like millions of others, I get the same trash at my personal e-mail account. I have removed it from my Web pages in an effort to thwart robots harvesting addresses to sell to smut peddlers. But the Internet never forgets an address, so my only remaining option might be to close the account.

That's how the daily deluge of disgust offsets the benefits of keeping in touch with family, friends and volunteers with the worthy causes I support. I have come to dread logging on to my e-mail account.

I installed antispam software on my home PC. But the spammers change addresses or create fake addresses faster than I can declare them enemies. So half the trash gets through, while the anti-spam software occasionally snags valid e-mail.

This software allows me to bounce messages in the hope that the spammer will drop my address from their lists. But it is more expensive to prune the lists than to keep sending spam to invalid addresses. They therefore ignore bounced messages.

But at work I am not permitted to install software. This is done for understandable, if frustrating, security reasons. The managers of firewalls and e-mail gateways are reluctant to delete spam for fear that valid queries will be thrown away.

That possibility is one reason agencies are setting up contact management applications to handle customer queries. The mail-to URLs on Web pages are easy targets for the automated tools spammers employ to harvest new addresses.

The other day a female colleague received a virus-laden amorous advance'with the spoofed return address of my e-mail account. The attached love note was actually a virus which, fortunately, the department's defenses deleted. But the ridiculous smash note remained.

Every unsolicited message steals dollars from the taxpayers. Agency managers must recognize how they sap productivity.

I applaud the Federal Trade Commission's suit against egregious spammers. In one case, FTC accused Brian D. Westby of Ballwin, Mo., of sending millions of messages to drive business to more than 20 adult Web sites.

FTC says Westby earned more than $1 million in commissions for his efforts. The deluge will persist as long as spam is nearly free to generate and its return on investment so lucrative. Meanwhile, thousands of feds and other workers angrily pound the delete key in what is becoming a hostile work environment.

Walter Houser is a federal webmaster.

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