Learning from spam

First published August 2002.
Last modified 03-Dec-2011.


I have a theory about spam. And there is a lesson to be learned from my theory, which may be useful both for spammers, and for people who do not eat their young.

My theory is based upon the fact that the things being sold via most spam e-mails are so clearly fraudulent that only an idiot would consider buying them.

Amazing off-shore investment schemes. Herbal Viagra. Homeopathic Human Growth Hormone (which, according to homeopathic principles, ought to make you shrink). And, of course, good old pyramid schemes ("I'll make you a promise. READ THIS E-MAIL TO THE END!"). None of this stuff appeals too strongly to people who don't, shall we say, believe every word of the exercise equipment commercials shown two hours before dawn.

One of the most spammed-about products is spamming services themselves - no-questions-asked ISPs that allege they'll Send Your Business Message To One Hundred Million Hot Prospects. And I think the only-idiots-would-buy-this rule applies to those as well, seeing as you can't exactly complain to Consumer Affairs when a company you paid to do something dubiously legal (at best) turns out not to. It's the suing-the-incompetent-hit-man problem.

But not every spammer out there has carpet burns on his or her knuckles. Most of them have to just be your ordinary common-or-garden unscrupulous businesspeople - except with the same skill in tracking down poorly secured mail servers, or opening Internet accounts without paying anything much for them, that dodgy car salesmen have in the hiding-nasty-transmission-noises area.

Sensible spammers are acutely aware of the fact that even if their dodgy scheme or preposterous medication only gets 100 takers from two million recipients, they've still made a handy profit for the day, considering how cheap it is to e-mail a fajillion people through some foolishly-left-open server somewhere.

Assume that a given spam's sent by someone non-idiotic, but is targeted at idiots. The spammer will want to make sure that no people with a normal collection of wits respond. Heck, maybe there's some clever-clogs out there that just got an Internet account and is new to all this online stuff, but is acutely familiar with consumer protection law and not afraid to use it when they discover what a rip-off the product they naively ordered turns out to be.

The spammer wants to make absolutely sure that those people will delete the spam in disgust. Only people too dumb to do the spammer any harm when they're disappointed with the product - or with the fact that the spammer just takes their credit card number and runs - are wanted.

A Fool And His Money Are Welcome Here.

The way to keep people from the deeper end of the gene pool out of your customer base is to make your spam look as if it's made by idiots. Even if it isn't.

So that's why some presumably perfectly intelligent spammers make, and send over and over, spams that HAVE TEXT IN ALL CAPS, or

instead, some charactersrs
at the ends of the lineses
are repeateded

>>>>> or it's all indented
>>>>>> multiple, but strangely inconsistent
>>> levels with forward-marks
>>>> even though it's not pretending to be
>>>>> something that's been forwarded to the recipient

or they put everything in

tables with      
messed-up   formatting

or they make other HTML mistakes that make sure that on the mail clients most likely to be used by the technically savvy - in other words, not AOL or Outlook Express - the message is barely legible.

Because, for instance, the foreground colour's been set to yellow but the background's an image that, say, Eudora won't render, and no background colour's been set, and so the whole message comes out like this.

Screw up your HTML just right and your message, which renders as a garish buy-me page in the e-mail clients of choice for those who don't know any better, will appear, to Eudora users, to just be an expanse of white space with a few random words.

However you do it, it means the clever ones, even if they're total Internet naifs, will stab the delete button and try to expunge all memory of your hideous missive from their minds. While people who, themselves, habitually send e-mails called "FWD: FWD: FWD: FWD: FWD: Cute Storie!!1!" to everyone with whom they've ever corresponded, will give your proposition the same serious consideration they accord the age-old puzzle of who pushes up the next tissue when you pull one out of the box (front-running answer: "God").

Result: Great prosperity from a neatly selected market segment, and no grief from the rest of the recipients.


OK, OK, so my theory's pretty weak.

I get buttloads (a technical term) of spam, most of which I rapidly auto-process into complaint e-mails via Spam Cop. Very occasionally, the complaints even achieve something.

But most of the really ghastly spam does seem to have genuinely come from people without a brain in their head. I can only believe someone's faking stupidity when they haven't made some spam that's literally useless, because it provides no way for anybody to make the spammer richer.

There can be no excuse, for instance, for sending spam telling people to visit a Web site that was shut down weeks ago. Especially when you've sent the same darn thing every few days since the shutdown happened. Spams with a list of five or more free-home-page sites are different; they'll keep working to some extent until all of the pages are toast. But some spammers enthusiastically promote the same 404 Not Found or This Redirector Cancelled Because Of Spam page over and over.

Similarly, sending messages with HTML in them that couldn't possibly render properly in any browser or e-mail client ever made raises some questions about how often, and how hard, the spammer might have been dropped on his or her head in early life.

Some of the truly awful messages must come from people who don't speak English and so don't know they're sending gibberish. But that doesn't get many of them off the hook.

Interestingly, though, some of the most bare-buttockedly offensive, hopelessly broken messages I've received haven't been from traditional spammers at all. They've been from public relations people. And it is these people who should pay attention to The Lesson that comes out of my half-baked Theory Of Spam.

Certain among the PR community, naming no names, fell upon multimedia e-mail attachments with the enthusiasm of kindergarten kids who've just pried open a crate of hand grenades. And the results of their enthusiasm had certain similarities, too.

In the olden days, you just used to get the occasional Word document from a PR person in which there was one kilobyte of text and three megabytes of scanned-at-600-dpi embedded images, all scaled to take up a total of about 15 square centimetres of page space. These were usually the same people that'd send you the four-colour suitable-for-poster-reproduction Encapsulated Postscript version of their product shot. You could tell when those sorts of messages were on the way, because your mail server would start to emit the distinctive sound of a Kombi van being pushed down a garden hose.

Nowadays, those people send you product info pages as PowerPoint files (which you can at least probably easily view, even if, like all right-thinking people, you don't have PowerPoint). You can could count yourself lucky if you just get a 200 kilobyte Shockwave attachment. Which gives you all the joy of watching an interminable Web site intro animation coupled with the certain knowledge that you're never actually going to get to some site you chose to see. But at least it's just an e-mail with an attachment.

The real gems are the ones that leave you dreaming of just getting a simple Shockwave waste of time, which you can painlessly ignore. For some people, there seems to be something difficult about just attaching longandboring.swf or droolproofpaper.ppt to a message. Well, there is if the e-mails I've received that're severely broken, but have something vaguely attachment-ish in there somewhere, are anything to go by.

In just one week, some time ago, I received two amazing server-mangled excrescences in which the content of the e-mail itself was just an apologetic message from a Microsoft Exchange server that had a screaming conniption over the content. And there was an attachment.

The attachment was the original message, containing multiple consecutive nested Content-Type: headers, giant blocks of formatting rubbish generated by the latest version of Microsoft Automunger, a couple of probably animated GIFs of awesome dimensions, and then a Shockwave file.

Open these sorts of messages in a Microsoft e-mail client and they'll probably look like a message which contains nothing but another message which has files attached. "Drilling down" is not a term I ever thought I'd have cause to use with regard to e-mail, but that's what you have to do if you're determined enough to find out what the flack in question wants you to know.

In a non-Microsoft e-mail client, the attachment to the main message will generally just be a big butt-ugly text file that needs to be manually carved apart and decoded, if you can be bothered. Which I can't.

Either way, the message won't look anything like whatever the heck it was supposed to look like, and I feel safe in saying that the PR people that sent it would achieve a similar result for their clients by visiting us journos in person and weeing in our desk drawers while explaining the merits of the product or service in question.

Most flack-mail isn't nearly that bad, of course. But a lot of it is still HTML-encoded "rich" text, which can be illegible for all of the usual dumb-spam reasons. The most successful spams - well, the ones that I presume must be successful, 'cos I keep getting the darn things over and over and over, and I can actually read them - are plain text. Message, US freecall number that's useless for people here in Australia, bogus remove address (or genuine remove address which actually works as a "Woohoo! Mark this guy's address as live and send him one billion more spams!" feature), pithy signoff line, and that's it.

PR people, and anybody else sending mail to lots of recipients for legitimate reasons, can learn from the most successful of the unsolicited commercial mail scum. This is what e-mail that works looks like.

Do not assume the people to whom you're sending your message are using the same e-mail client you are. Do not assume a fancy-pants "rich" message will render correctly. And do not send attachments the size of a bulk crude carrier, because the journo who's at a trade show in Singapore and checking his mail via a mobile phone Internet link will simply make a note to strangle you when next you meet.

Even if your message renders perfectly on the recipient's system, and even if they don't have to wait for aeons while it downloads, the message you send by tarting up promotional e-mails with multimedia frills is still "We're too cheap to send you a mud cake and a bottle of hooch along with a laser-printed press release, even though we know that's the only way to get a journalist's attention that's both proven and legal."

Think about this, my flackish friends. And anybody else who's trying to impress via e-mail.

But mainly the flacks.

Because I'm sick of having to buy my own gin.

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