Spam is back with a vengeance. Luckily we can't read any of it

It's a shame still nothing can be done about all the false positives, though

Something for the Weekend WE BRING ENGLISH TO YOUR FEET! reads the email.

That's nice. I knew I was lacking something in the footwear department. A fine pair of bobby dazzlers, no doubt.

No, that can't be right. Let me run it through another translation app. Ah, how about this?

WE BRING ENGLISH TO YOU!

This makes more sense: it must be trying to sell English language lessons. It's at the top of a message I keep receiving but cannot understand. The original text is:

İNGİLİZCEYİ AYAĞINIZA GETİRİYORUZ !

I am ashamed to admit it but my command of Turkish leaves much to be desired. Thank goodness we have the likes of DeepL and Google Translate to bring Turkish to our feet!

The fact that I keep receiving this invitation over and over again to learn English means it is spam.

I certainly hope it is. If it isn't, it could be that the messages are coming from a consortium of SFTW readers and Register sub-editors who reckon I could do with a refresher course. Why they'd do this in Turkish remains a mystery. Maybe it's a sub-editor in-joke, in which case, I hope they're reading this right now and thinking “KAHRETSIN! KEŞFEDİLDİK!”

Until this recent deluge of unwanted mail from Turkish TEFL podiatrists, along with another Turkish organization's obsessive campaign that I should buy a list of companies on a USB stick, it was as if spammers had all but given up on me.

Incoming junk mail had dwindled to a trickle, not even received daily any more. I had even grown rather fond of the increasingly rare and desperate remaining ads for sleeping pills, tawdry attempts to dump malware by asking me to open Excel attachments, and those enigmatic bi-monthly messages containing nothing but an obviously dodgy URL sent from the hotmail address of a colleague who died eight years previously.

I had begun to wonder if the spammers had blocked my email address. How dare they? Oh, I felt so unwanted!

This is a far cry from the bad old days of the late 1990s. Back then, I was receiving spam in insane quantities: literally hundreds on a daily basis. When I asked my ISP, run by a friend, what he could do about it, he responded by exclaiming "Egads!" He'd taken a look and found that his server's anti-spam filter was already diverting and shredding thousands of such shit intended for me every day before it even reached my inbox.

Until then, I had been largely protected by sticking with in-house corporate messaging and BBS-based email. I don't remember ever receiving a single unsolicited mail, let alone repeated ads, on CIX, CompuServe or Lotus Notes. It was only when I got my first ISP-provided address that it blew up. The only thing that kept me going was that I knew it was much, much worse for those sad bastards who thought it would be cool to join AOL.

It was in the late 1990s, if I remember correctly, that internet activists got together to compile lists of IP addresses that had become notorious sources of spam which they then shared with ISPs. This method was successful for ooh, I dunno, about two seconds. Often it just hamstrung innocent mail servers which had been temporarily hijacked by a spammer spoofing the domain with made-up reply addresses.

With the turn of the Millennium came the introduction of content filtering and NLP. Robots started reading all our messages and making educated guesses as to whether the content might be spam. In my experience, what this means is allowing all the spam to enter your inbox unhindered while adding "***SPAM***" in the subject line of every valid message that you do want to receive.

If someone could work out how to invert this method, they'd deserve a Nobel Prize.

Twenty years on and this seems to remain the predominant anti-spam method. Other methods have come on board, from better sender identification, outbound protection and SMTP callback verification to asking people to use disposable email aliases. None work well enough alone, so organizations such as SpamAssassin take a hybrid approach of multiple methods when assigning numerical scores to suspected spam.

A highlight was when checksum-based filtering was all the rage. This identified spam by looking for similarity in the text content of the messages, which kind of makes sense. While it encouraged some spammers to try to get around it by stuffing messages with uniquely randomized nonsense text, it produced an all-too-brief window of creativity from the Far East.

The late noughties, for me, was the age of Korean Spam. Entirely constructed from graphics and using no live text at all, spam from South Korea was wild, inventive, hideously gorgeous and retina-burningly colorful. I used to receive shitloads of it and found it utterly adorable. I have sung the praises of Korean spam in this column on a previous occasion and while my Google+ web pages devoted to the phenomenon have long since evaporated, I still have my collection safe and sound in the Dabbs vault.

As the 20-teens approached, though, my spam folder saw less and less action. I put this down to the rise of commercial reputation management as an offshoot of SEO. There will always be spammers, but grown-ups have learnt there are more profitable and less damaging ways to sell stuff. Hybrid anti-spam filters began making finer judgements on the nature of incoming email using a huge range of criteria.

Well, they might be. All I know is that following a catastrophic failure by my long-time domain and email host about a year ago, I switched provider in a huff and that's when the spam came back. At least it's easily identified and shuffled away into a Junk folder before I even notice it.

But now everything is backwards. In t'old days, I used to have to prune my inbox to get rid of the spam. Today, I have to trawl through my Junk folder to pull out all the valid messages. The system thinks everything is spam. Messages from people in my contacts list? ***SPAM***! Electricity and mobile phone bills? ***SPAM***! It also has a strong conviction that press releases are spam too, although it may be just having joke with me about that.

Or not. I recently wrote a brief reply to an incoming press release. Later that day, I received an automated message to say that my reply had been rejected by the recipient's email server because it had identified the content as spam. Once again, I felt so unwanted. All I'd written was "Thank you. Could you send me more information, please?"

The content that they had identified as spam was, of course, their original email that I had automatically quoted underneath: i.e. the press release they had written and sent to me in the first place.

All I want is a spam filter that keeps out all those stupid repeated ads for roofers in Oregon who are "ready to come to your front door" even though my front door is 6,000km away. Not one that's so paranoid that even a note from Mme D gets given the ***SPAM*** treatment.

Let in the good stuff. Let in the right stuff. And for God's sake, let the Korean spam back in. We could all do with a laugh right now. ®

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Alistair Dabbs
Alistair Dabbs is a freelance technology tart, juggling tech journalism, training and digital publishing. He remembers a period a long while back when he used to receive a lot of spam written in Russian. This was before machine translation was freely available so he never did find out what it was for. Maybe they were roofers too. More at Autosave is for Wimps and @alidabbs.

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