Get the upper hand when faced with spam overload

Spam. For many, the word evokes fond memories of opening a tin of Hormel spiced ham at

But for those of us on the Internet, spam is a four-letter word of ill repute, the term
used for those unsolicited--and unwanted--mass-mailed messages that clog our in-boxes and
consume precious hours of time to read and delete.

Not only does spam waste Internet resources, it also chews up agency intranet capacity.

Any mailbox connected to the Internet can be filled by spam messages, including any
address behind a firewall.

Most firewalls are set to let e-mail through because, until recently, it posed few

But clever spammers are collecting addresses from newsgroups and mail list
subscriptions as well as making educated guesses about account names.

Once upon a time, one could reply to a spammer and flood his Internet service provider
with invective, causing his account to be closed.

Spammers reacted by acquiring their own providers, which cheerfully ignore complaints.

They also have started forging replies to their addresses so that the return mail
evaporates, or worse, descends on some innocent third party.

The easiest way to deal with spam is to delete the message. This takes a few seconds,
which works if the spam level is low. But if you are the recipient of a large number of
unwanted messages, you may be inclined to more direct action, especially if your agency
pays by the message.

Most e-mail client software has mail filters that can file messages by sender or topic.
You can create a twit list that files spam messages into the trash folder directly. But
some of these twits regularly change their names and return addresses to evade these

Also, you still may have to pay for the resources to download and store these bogus
messages. If the problem persists, you need different tactics.

Another approach is to send your complaints about spam to or, being the domain origin. Someone
responsible may act to stop the spam. But often the site goes to the spammer himself or to
an innocent victim of a forged return address who can't do anything to stop the activity.

Typically, spammers sell something for someone else. If you have the time and energy,
you can contact those parties.

Tell them that this negative marketing method is hurting them, not helping them. Point
out to them that abuse of federal computer resources is a felony.

If they laugh at you or don't respond, refer the issue to your security officer or
systems department.

Internet service providers can filter spam, although at the risk of unintentionally
deleting legitimate mail. Likewise, agencies can block spam at their firewalls, even
though, I am told, it is permissible to receive the message.

The rule that agency computers are for official use only is invoked only when an
employee replies to messages that aren't official. The spammer can claim that he is simply
exercising his right as a citizen to communicate with federal employees.

This is one reason many agencies are reluctant to expose employees to dubious e-mail.
Hence, they do not routinely make staff e-mail addresses public. But spammers can ask for
federal e-mail lists under the Freedom of Information Act.

The Internet Engineering Task Force has created a guide for Internet users about mass
unsolicited e-mail and NetNews postings. The working group drafted a request for comments
on mass unsolicited e-mail, as well as on responsible advertising.


Spam sent to a mailing list or newsgroup frequently incites recipients to send angry
reactions to the whole group.

If the spam contains suggestions for removing the recipient's name from a mailing list,
many people will send their remove messages to the entire list, not just the originator.
So the original message--spam--creates more unwanted mail--spam spam spam--which generates
more unwanted mail--spam spam spam spam and spam.

You can see how it resembles the old Monty Python routine that spawned this current use
of the word.

Similar problems can occur in newsgroups, but their impact is limited somewhat by
so-called cancelbots--programs that cancel postings--that are triggered by a posting to
multiple newsgroups

Walter R. Houser, who has more than two decades of experience in federal information
management, is webmaster for a Cabinet agency. His own Web home page is at

Stay Connected

Sign up for our newsletter.

I agree to this site's Privacy Policy.