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TECHNOLOGY IN PRACTICE

NOTHING.BUT.NET WITH ERIK J. HEELS

Combating Spam

What if you reversed the flow of junk e-mails flooding your inbox and knocked back a message to each of the spammers?

 

If you’ve ever made a purchase online, registered a domain name, posted a message to an electronic discussion group or published your e-mail address on a Web page, you know the vexations of receiving unsolicited commercial e-mail (UCE), commonly known as spam. Those who send UCE acquire e-mail addresses from a variety of sources, such as direct marketing companies, robot programs that crawl the Web and domain-name registrar databases. But in short, any time you give out your e-mail address, you run the risk of having it end up in the spammers’ hands.

UCE fills up my inbox at an alarming rate, with dozens of pieces coming in on a daily basis. One day last year, I decided to embark on an experiment: For six months, I replied to all the UCE that I received.

Spamming the Spammers

My strategy was to reply to the spammers with a polite "no thanks" message that included a short description of the services that I offer. Maybe, just maybe, some of the UCE purveyors would need patent, trademark or copyright assistance. And maybe, just maybe, my polite response would stand out in the crowd of angry e-mails that I presume these purveyors usually receive.

Because I didn’t want to worsen my spam problem, I created a temporary e-mail address to use in my campaign. Many spammers use descriptive addresses such as "refinance-your-mortgage" or "build-a-better-web-site." So I created the temporary address "patent-trademark-copyright@heels.com," which pretty much describes what I do for a living.

Next, using Eudora’s Stationery feature, I created an e-mail message template just for my spam replies. This way, any time I received a piece of UCE, I could simply reply with my spam template, which would automatically set the "From" address to my temporary e-mail address.

Why didn’t I set up my temporary e-mail address as an auto-responder that would automatically reply to all UCE? Because it is not possible to identify incoming spam as such 100 percent of the time, even using a good series of mail filters (rules for transferring e-mail addresses to various mailboxes). So, in what turned out to be only a semi-automated process, I would first gather together the day’s spam and then reply with my standard anti-spam message. Here’s how it read:

From: patent-trademark-copyright@ heels.com
Subject: thanks - need patent help?

Greetings,

Thanks for your e-mail. Let me know if you need any intellectual property (patent, trademark, copyright) assistance. All the best.

Regards,
Erik

The message also contained my regular e-mail signature file, which includes my name, address and phone number, a blurb about my newsletter and a standard attorney-client disclaimer.

Calculating the Campaign’s ROI

Following this process for six months, I ultimately replied to 7,771 pieces of spam, or approximately 43 pieces per day. Of those replies, 63 percent (4,894) bounced back to me, usually because the intended recipient’s address was invalid or its e-mail account was full.

At final count, 37 percent (2,877) of my messages were delivered somewhere (though I don’t know how many were actually read by someone). I did receive 13 responses from real people. Unfortunately, four of those were from friends whose messages were wrongly labeled as spam by my e-mail filters. The remaining nine people thanked me for my e-mail and indicated that they would keep my information on file. One person requested a proposal.

So, from 7,771 messages, I generated nine responses—about one-tenth of 1 percent—which resulted in one prospect and zero sales. Translation: The ROI on this campaign was terrible, especially compared to traditional direct mail, which normally generates response rates in the range of 0.5 percent to 1.0 percent, with some actual sales resulting.

I can only conclude that the ROI for the spammers is more positive than mine was. Otherwise, they wouldn’t send out spam in the first place.

Taking Another Tack: Minimizing Spam

Having concluded that responding to spam is a waste of time, I turned my attention to at least minimizing the amount of spam I receive.

• First, I deleted my temporary anti-spam e-mail address.

•Second, because some spammers get e-mail addresses from domain name databases, I set up a separate address just for domain name registrations. And I consolidated all my domain names into one account with an OpenSRS (www.opensrs.org) registrar.

• Third, I logged on to the various online vendors that I use and changed my e-mail address in my profile to "info@heels.com." I now use info@ heels.com on all of my public-facing materials. I have a "real" e-mail address that I use for practice and personal correspondence—but widely publishing that address is what started my spam problem in the first place.

• Fourth, when incoming UCE includes a simple way to be removed from the sender’s mailing list, I quickly take advantage of it. I opt out of mailings whenever I can do so from a Web site. When I’ve had to "unsubscribe" from these lists by sending back an e-mail message, the message has, more often than not, bounced back to me (creating another unwanted item for my inbox).

• Lastly, I continue to update my e-mail filters routinely.

As a result of these efforts, I’ve been able to reduce incoming spam from 43 pieces per day to about 12 pieces per day. Interestingly, this brings UCE fairly close to a 1:1 ratio with the legitimate e-mails I receive daily.

Putting Spam in Context

You can take concrete steps to minimize the amount of UCE that you receive. But after you’ve done that, the best way to deal with spam is to ignore it. A few years ago, I would have been shocked to find 12 pieces of spam in my inbox every day. Now I’m just mildly annoyed.

Perhaps real anti-spam laws will be passed someday to combat the growing spread. Until then, treat unwanted UCE that sneaks by your initial defenses as you would unwanted direct mail. File it in the trash.

Erik J. Heels (info@heels.com) is a patent attorney and co-author of the ABA book Law Law Law on the Internet: The Best Legal Web Sites and More.