Roadmap96: MAP09 - Spamming and Urban Legends | WebReference

Roadmap96: MAP09 - Spamming and Urban Legends


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"Well there's egg and bacon; egg, sausage and bacon; egg and spam; bacon and spam; egg, bacon, sausage and spam; spam, bacon, sausage and spam; spam, egg, spam, spam, bacon and spam; spam, spam, spam, egg and spam; spam, spam, spam, spam, spam, spam, baked beans, spam, spam, spam and spam; or lobster thermidor aux crevettes with a mornay sauce garnished with truffle pate', brandy and a fried egg on top of spam."
-- Monty Python's Flying Circus

It's possible, even easy, to get a list of every Usenet newsgroup and publicly accessible LISTSERV list. With very little thought you can convert the list into a program that will mail the same message to every single one of these groups.

Doing this is called "spamming," after the Monty Python sketch quoted above.

Recently, there have been three such mailings that have "succeeded." One poster said that the end of the world was nigh; another advertised the services of their law firm in the so-called "Green Card Lottery" message; and a third, labeled "MAKE.MONEY.FAST," was the Usenet equivalent of the old chain letter.

Of the three, the one that got the most attention was the Green Card Lottery spam (1). According to the Washington Post, the law firm in question considered the Internet to be "an ideal, low-cost and perfectly legitimate way to target people likely to be potential clients."

Many people felt differently, though. They felt that, first, the Internet is the wrong place to conduct commercial business. Many of the charters of the Usenet newsgroups and LISTSERVs specifically prohibit offers to do business. The few that do accept offers restrict the buyers and sellers to individuals, not businesses. The Net has had a long tradition of non-commercialism ever since its founding days as ARPANet.

Second, the Net is not free. One popular newsreader, "trn," displays the following message before it lets you post:

     This program posts news articles to thousands of machines 
     throughout the enter [sic] civilized world.  Your message will 
     cost the net hundreds if not thousands of dollars to send 
     everywhere.  Please be sure you know what you are doing.
     Are you absolutely sure you want to do this?  y/n

Since the spammers are alleged to have posted to over 6,000 groups, they surely spent quite a bit of somebody's money.

Finally, people who gather together to discuss a topic become annoyed when someone discusses something outside of the group's charter. They often complain to the newsgroup itself, thereby increasing the traffic even further.

Note that spams generally aren't cross-posted. That means that every news host will receive, process, and make available to its readers a separate copy of the spam for every newsgroup. Of course, "courteous" spammers who use cross-posting can make things even worse. In one recent spam, not only was the spam sent to all sorts of unrelated newsgroups, but so were the angry replies! (The people replying were guilty of not reading their "To:" and "Cc:" lines before they posted.)



First, NEVER reply to the group. The spammer won't read it. He is interested in talking, not listening, and he is not a list member or a regular reader. Your angry posting will only annoy the other members of the group and will not affect the spammer in the slightest.

Second, if you have a lot of time on your hands, you may read the responses of members who ignored my first bit of advice. On comp.os.vxworks, for example, one (moderately clueless) member posted (in response to the end of the world spam) "This is not a religious newsgroup!" An old-timer responded "I think that very much depends on the topic." ;) (that's a winking smiley)

Third, if you have even more time on your hands, reply to the poster at his own e-mail address. But you may not get satisfaction. Quite often spammers hit and run, and by the time you get back to yell at them, they have closed out their accounts (or if their site administrator is on her toes, they will have had their accounts closed by the administrator).

Fourth, if you are even angrier at the spammer, you can write to the administrator of his site. If the spammer is CLOWN@CIRCUS.COM, his administrator is POSTMASTER@CIRCUS.COM

Fifth, and this is Net abuse that can get you removed by your site administrator, you may want to mailbomb the offender. That consists of sending him lots and lots of e-mail until his site or his account crashes. And yes, it is perfectly possible to make a machine crash, taking down all its users, by sending too much mail to a person on that machine. The same thing can happen to gateways processing the mail.

What I do is *think* about mailing offenders the Manhattan telephone directory. In PostScript. I enjoy the thought without abusing the Net myself. Yes, you have it within your power to spam the world or to mailbomb (mostly innocent) people. You also have it within your power to buy a gun and start shooting at people. That does not mean you have to do it.



Another example of spamming on a much smaller scale, at least in my mind, is the urban legends that simply refuse to die. There is no better example of an urban legend than the story surrounding Craig Shergold (this is a TRUE urban legend, btw).

There once was a seven-year-old boy named Craig Shergold who was diagnosed with a seemingly incurable brain tumor. As he lay dying, he wished only to have friends send him postcards. The local newspapers got a hold of the tear-jerking story. Soon, the boy's wish had changed: he now wanted to get into the Guinness Book of World Records for the largest postcard collection. Word spread around the world. People by the millions sent him postcards.

Miraculously, the boy lived. An American billionaire even flew him to the U.S. for surgery to remove what remained of the tumor. And his wish succeeded beyond his wildest dreams -- he made the Guinness Book of World Records.

But with Craig now well into his teens, his dream has turned into a nightmare for the post office in the small town outside London where he lives. Like Craig himself, his request for cards just refuses to die, inundating the post office with millions of cards every year. Just when it seems like the flow is slowing, along comes somebody else who starts up a whole new slew of requests for people to send Craig post cards (or greeting cards or business cards -- Craig letters have truly taken on a life of their own and begun to mutate). Even Dear Abby has been powerless to make it stop. (2)

The current variation on the Craig story that is floating around the Internet is that you should send your cards to the Make-A-Wish foundation chapter in Atlanta, Georgia. Please do not do this. Make-A-Wish -- a foundation that grants the dying wish of children with terminal illnesses -- has enough to worry about.

Other urban legends currently making their way around the Internet include a story that gangs are driving around at night with their headlights out and then shooting anyone who "flashes them" with their high beam headlights, and that e-mail letters with the subject line "GOOD TIMES" contain viruses. The "lights out" story may be true but the police departments in Chicago, New York City, and Los Angeles all told me over the phone that the story was false. The "GOOD TIMES" virus story is a pure hoax.

I am going to share with you the number one rule for Internet discussion group survival: only post things that are relevant to the topic that the discussion group was created to discuss. The Craig Shergold story would have died a peaceful death years ago if people had only remembered the "relevant posting" rule.



  1. If you are really interested in urban legends, there is a Usenet newsgroup (alt.folklore.urban) that you should read.
  2. If you want to see a cute example of what a flame war really looks like, my dad recently recorded a flame war on a relatively calm Usenet group. That file is now on the LISTSERV file server at the InterNIC under the name FLAME FILE. Please feel free to GET this file (see MAP02: LISTSERV FILE SERVER COMMANDS for a review of the GET command).


(1) from "Green Card Lottery -- The Full Story" posted on on June 2, 1994

(2) from the "EFF's Guide to the Internet." Reprinted by permission.

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Originally written by Patrick Douglas Crispen