For 30 Tears Now, You’ve Been Getting Spam

This week the world marked an anniversary that has changed the face – and other anatomical regions – of email inboxes everywhere: the first known spam email was sent 30 years ago on Saturday.

But the message sent on May 3, 1978, by a marketer for the now-defunct DEC computer company to around 400 people on the west coast of the United States wasn’t called spam, and the sender dispatched it without ill intent.

How things have changed.

Spam got its name from a skit by the television show Monty Python’s Flying Circus, in which a group of Vikings in a restaurant that serves all of its food with Spam tinned meat sing a song repeating the word ad nauseum, says Brad Templeton, who has thoroughly researched the subject.

“Thus, the meaning of the term at least: something that keeps repeating and repeating to great annoyance,” Templeton, who was dabbling in the internet in the 1970s – when it was still the US government-run Arpanet – says on his website.

These days spamming is a sophisticated operation that affects millions and jams ill-prepared email inboxes.

The percentage of spam sent to account holders on Gmail – the email service offered by Google – quadrupled between 2004 and 2008, climbing from 20 percent to around 80 percent.

“To give you some sense of scale, we have tens of millions of users worldwide,” Gmail’s Jason Freidenfelds said, adding that only about one percent of spam gets through Gmail’s spam-filtering system, according to user feedback.

Spam methodology has also changed in the past 30 years.

Whereas the sender of the first spam had to type in each recipient’s address individually, today the job is often done remotely using cyber-monsters called botnets.

Botnets have hijacked around 30 percent of personal and office computers with inadequate security features and use them to dispatch thousands of spams each day, Templeton said.

“The recruited computers wait for commands that come through anonymous channels and tell them to send spam email to 1,000 people, all unbeknownst to their owners. The people who do this control millions of computers around the world,” Templeton said.

“Don’t look to the guy to your left; don’t look to the guy to your right. It’s you,” he said ominously.

Spam content and motives have also evolved since the 1978 message, which was an invitation to a product launch.

Spams today come from Nigerian “princes” or fictitious relatives of deceased African dictators intent on hoodwinking email account holders into parting with bank details or cash, in exchange for a slice of the wealth stashed in an offshore account.

More vicious spammers last year shut down government and business websites in European Union member Estonia by bombarding servers with traffic, a technique also used by a new breed of spammer, the online extortionist.

“The extortionist says, ‘Lovely business you have. Would be terrible if something happened to it.’ And if you don’t pay protection money, they get machines to just pound away at the web server all day so it can no longer work,” said Templeton.

But the most common form of spam remains the unsolicited message that tries to sell you a replica Rolex, a miracle weight loss formula, or medication to enlarge anatomical parts or enhance sexual prowess.

Twelve percent of internet users have bought something offered to them by spam, Graham Cluley, senior technology consultant at IT security company Sophos, said.

“Maybe these people are too embarrassed to go to their doctor or they want to save some money, but we have to educate them to report spam, delete spam, but absolutely never buy off spam,” he said.

“A Brazilian model died after using weight loss pills she bought off spam … The person who spams does not have a strong ethical sense,” he warned.

Last year, 75 percent of Americans who were tricked by internet fraudsters into parting with US$239.09 million were ensnared through a spam message, according to a report by the FBI.

But despite the warnings, the spammers still fish and people still bite.

“Pete Barnum was right when he said there’s a sucker born every minute,” said Templeton.

“I’ll expand it to say there’s a sucker spammed every second.”

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