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E-Business Secrets

Preview spam and you'll get more
You increase spam by opening it, not by unsubscribing

By  Brian Livingston March 21, 2003  

I described in the past month ways to prevent e-mail addresses on your Web site from being collected by "harvester" programs that feed spammer's lists (see E-Business Secrets issues from Feb. 26 and March 5).


You can solve an even bigger problem by keeping your business addresses from receiving more spam than they already get.

Other publications often warn you not to click the unsubscribe link of an e-mail message; if you do, it confirms your address and you'll get more spam. I'm convinced that this advice is dead wrong. Legitimate e-mail newsletters do honor unsubscribe requests, but most spammers don't honor them or use them in any manner, if their unsubscribe links even work.

Now there's a fascinating study that shows one of the real mechanisms that multiplies the spam your addresses receive. Out-law.com, a respected Web site maintained by British law firm Masons, ran an experiment that demonstrates this effect:

1. The law firm first set up numerous e-mail addresses that were unused except for being posted on various Web pages.

2. These addresses were soon "harvested" by software that searches Web pages for addresses. Spam messages began pouring in.

3. For the first two weeks of the experiment, the researchers did what novice Internet users do: They opened the messages that were received.

4. They found that 83 percent of the spam being received contained a coded "tracking" image. When the image was downloaded to be displayed in the message, it alerted the senders that a message sent to a specific address had been viewed. This is now the most prevalent mechanism by which spammers find "live" accounts, in my opinion.

5. Two weeks after opening the messages, the accounts that had been used received almost twice the volume of spam as before.

6. The researchers then began "bouncing" messages. To do this, they programmed their mail server to reply with a generic error indicating nondelivery. Only two weeks after taking this step, spam to these accounts decreased by 40 percent.

The bottom line? You can significantly reduce the spam that the addresses on your Web site receive by:

1. Not viewing messages that are likely to be spam.

2. Sending a "bounce" message to those messages that you deem to be spam.

It's important to note that the "preview pane" of Microsoft Outlook and similar e-mail packages downloads any images in your incoming messages. This activates the tracking codes in the same way as if you had fully opened the messages.

In my office, therefore, we turn off the preview pane of our e-mail programs before deleting messages that the From line or the Subject line indicate are spam. In Outlook, you can turn off the preview pane by clicking View, Preview Pane. In Outlook Express, it's View, Layout. (In various versions of Outlook and other programs, the menu placement may differ.)

It's trickier for you to send an "undeliverable" bounce to the senders of spam. Any mail server can do this, of course, but the hard part is integrating the controls of each user's e-mail program with this capability. With the volume of spam roughly quintupling every 12 months, I'm sure a button with this feature ("Delete and Bounce") will become a familiar part of all e-mail packages before long.

If you have more information about this or wish to send me a tip on any other subject, please send e-mail with "tip" in the subject line to: mailto:Brian@BriansBuzz.com

A summary of the study of spam and the tracking codes in downloadable images is at

http://www.out-law.com http://bri.li/4e84

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1. How Google keeps its e-business at the top of its game:

http://www.fastcompany.com http://bri.li/44c

2. As war begins, American readers turn to foreign news sites:

http://www.wired.com http://bri.li/834

3. Users are willing to pay specific amounts for music online:

http://cyberatlas.internet.com http://bri.li/c1c

4. Study shows only 9 percent of file swappers think it wrong:

http://www.mp3newswire.net http://bri.li/1004

5. Does Wi-Fi need Web services to be viable for business?:

http://www.silicon.com http://bri.li/13ec

6. Norton Internet Security hinders JavaScript coder testing:

http://www.webdevtips.com http://bri.li/17d4

7. Can you use a Weblog to help get yourself a great job?:

http://www.bloggerheads.com http://bri.li/1bbc

8. The pros and cons of Perl and Java for maintainable code:

http://www.rc3.org http://bri.li/1fa4

9. JavaScript vs. Flash vs. other means to get user input:

http://www.holovaty.com http://bri.li/238c

10. Six next-wave gizmos you'll be lusting after for years:

http://www.wired.com http://bri.li/2774

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A little bit of levity can make learning a lot faster. That's the credo of the Periodic Table of Haiku, a cooperative project in which volunteers recently finished describing all 118 known elements in verse.

The quality of the poems varies, but many are sublime. One of my favorites is a paean to element 21, scandium:

snow white Norse powder

getting there was half the fun --

makes you stronger, Al

Scandium increases the strength of aluminum, which is abbreviated Al. The project is full of inside jokes such as this. Look for yourself:

http://www.iscifistory.com http://bri.li/c3b4

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Brian Livingston is publisher of


Research Director is Vickie Stevens. Brian has published 10 books, including:

Windows Me Secrets:

http://www.amazon.com http://bri.li/0764534939

Windows 2000 Secrets:

http://www.amazon.com http://bri.li/0764534130

You'll receive a gift certificate good for a book, CD, or DVD of your choice if you're the first to send Brian a Top Story or Wacky Web Week he prints. Send tips to mail to: Brian@BriansBuzz.com with "tip" in the subject line.

Brian Livingston is publisher of BriansBuzz.com. Send tips to him at brian@briansbuzz.com.

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