Internet Legal Issues: SPAM

Spam is quite a notorious word among Internet users, and was first coined to describe the flood of unwanted e-mail advertisements to members of newsgroups in the early 1990’s. Now, spam has become a familiar concept that every Internet user deals with, regardless of his or her online practices. The word “spam” is generally used to describe any mass e-mail to which recipients have not subscribed.

In an attempt to disguise the true nature of spam, many online businesses with get-rich-quick schemes and semi-legal practices have begun calling it “direct mail marketing”, and target individuals as well as businesses and members of online communities. Apparently, they believe that if people receive “direct mail incentives”, that they will be more likely to participate in whatever offer the spammer is attempting to sell.

The reality, however, is that very few people enjoy spam, just like most people hate the junk mail that flows out of their home mailbox at the end of every day. Further, Internet service providers (ISP’s) are bearing most of the burden because it costs money for hundreds of millions of e-mails to be sent en mass for the purpose of marketing a less-than-desirable product or service.

Although legislators recognize the burden and the annoyance of spam, it is growing increasingly difficult to regulate, which means that nothing has been passed to that effect. Using “mirrored” e-mail addresses and websites; falsifying subject lines of spam e-mails; using free e-mail providers to send these messages and more problems have left consumers with little recourse. Now, spam is not only annoying, but it can also be dangerous.

Financial institutions have been targeted of late as ways for unscrupulous individuals to collect financial information from customers using spam. Just the other day, I received an e-mail from ‘service@paypal.com’ telling me to sign into my account to verify the purchase of a $500 Nikon camera. I immediately picked up the phone to call PayPal, and my suspicions of a hoax were immediately confirmed. Had I not been aware of this problem through the media, I might have clicked on the “Sign In” button, entered my PayPal address and password, and unknowingly given that information away.

This is even more serious when it comes to spam being used to generate usernames and passwords for banks and credit unions.

Civil liberties advocates have long protested the regulation of spam, and any legislation that might make bulk mailings illegal for businesses. Unfortunately, this opinion seems to be winning when it comes to legislation. So how can consumers protect themselves from spam?

1. Use Your Spam Mailbox

Many e-mail providers have spam boxes into which e-mails are filed when the service provider deems it to be spam. This can reduce the annoyance and allow you to more easily discriminate between spam and legitimate e-mails from friends, family and colleagues.

2. Pay Attention to Instructions

If you receive an e-mail purportedly to be from your financial institution or from PayPal, be sure to check the website address. It may be similar to that of your company, but you’ll be able to see that it is not the legitimate address.

3. Never Give Away Passwords

Don’t ever reply to an e-mail with your password or username because it may be spam. Instead, type in the address you already know and go to the legitimate website for confirmation.

4. Report Spam to the FTC

Visit the FTC’s website and report instances of spam that you consider dangerous or in breach of your rights. Nothing will be done about spam until it is considered an irresolvable problem.

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