An administrator fights back
By James Hanback Jr.
JULY 27, 1998: If the Internet is the Information Superhighway, spammers are the guys who swerve into another person's lane of traffic without using a signal, run over innocent pedestrians who attempt to use the crosswalk, tailgate other automobiles, and generally annoy other cyber-motorists with their bad netizenship.
For the past month or so, one of those Internet road hogs has been consistently driving too close to me, forcing me to actions good netizens really shouldn't have to take.
Internet users find themselves having to deal with spammers, who buy the users' e-mail addresses from America Online or other companies and put them on mailings lists. Meanwhile, e-mail server administrators must also deal with unscrupulous sorts who relay messages through innocent servers and use those resources to spew evil spam all over the Net.
Real-world truckers call this rude behavior "drafting." It's what happens when drivers slip up as close as they can behind a speeding rig and put their cars in neutral. The force of the air current from the moving truck pulls the car along with it, at least until the trucker realizes what's going on and hits those brakes.
Like drafting, relaying messages through another server is stealing another's resources for your own personal gain.
California-based WorldTouch Inc., a so-called marketing company that also uses the name BullsEye Software, has consistently been spamming Nashville Scene e-mail addresses gleaned from the paper's Web site ( http://www.nashscene.com ). WordTouch/BullsEye seeks out susceptible e-mail servers and uses them to relay spam. Most of the time, the server's administrator never even knows the drafting is taking place.
"E-MAIL MARKETING WORKS!" the WorldTouch message claims. It landed two or three times a day, several days a week, on five of the Nashville Scene's e-mail addresses. "E-MAIL MARKETING WORKS!"
That's why everyone here who received that e-mail ran right out and mailed an order form to purchase BullsEye e-mail marketing software.
The disturbing thing was not that the company managed to gather the e-mail addresses of Scene employees. It was that BullsEye left no way to contact them to remove our names from their list. Because the company was relaying its message through other servers, and because they were also using a false e-mail address and domain as the starting point for the whole process, it was nearly impossible to return an e-mail to the original source.
Finally, attempting to disguise themselves as a reputable company, BullsEye's messages began offering instructions for getting off the mailing list. I followed the instructions, sending a snail mail request to be removed from the list. When that didn't work, I called the company directly and only got an answering machine. My phone calls were not returned.
After being nice and following instructions, I called the company one last time, informed them that I was taking the matter to the Better Business Bureau, and added that unless WorldTouch ceased all e-mail contact with Nashville Scene addresses, they would be reported to the Federal Trade Commission.
The next day there were seven copies of "E-MAIL MARKETING WORKS!" in my mailbox. I was livid. In addition to filing my complaint with the FTC, I decided to lock the doors of my e-mail server against this company and every server through which they've relayed.
All I can say is, thank the Lords of Cyberspace for freeware such as Sendmail ( http://www.sendmail.org ), a common e-mail program used on Unix systems such as my e-mail server. The latest version comes with anti-spam defaults that prevent evil spammers from spreading their disease through upstanding netizens, and it also allows server administrators to block offensive e-mailers from sending any more information to the system's users. Administrators can also instruct Sendmail to check incoming e-mail domains against a "Realtime Blackhole List" (RBL) maintained at maps.vix.com. If the incoming mail's domain is on the list, the mail will not be delivered.
I spent quite a bit of time over the past two weeks examining, configuring, and asking questions about every aspect of Sendmail 8.9.1. Special thanks go to Kelly Setzer of Telalink Inc. and regular "Online" column reader Kendrick Myatt of Datatek International Inc., both of whom fielded a barrage of questions during my WorldTouch spam-fighting and Sendmail setup.
Myatt, a regular anti-spam crusader, first recommended that I secure my server against the potential threat of spam relay after I wrote a column about the problem. I'm happy to pass along his recommendation and information to Scene readers: Along with maps.vix.com, he recommends that spam victims visit http://spam.abuse.net, or http://www.cauce.org for more information on the war against these rude intruders.
The Internet is intended to network the world. As a result, it can further communication and understanding among the people of the world. But as long as we've got careless, abusive drivers on the Information Superhighway, more people will stick to safer lanes of travel, perhaps slowing the Net's evolution in the process.
Granted, as shopping online is popularized, the Internet will become more commercial. There's nothing wrong with shopping online and marketing online as long as they're not annoying and time-consuming for the user. It's only natural that, as the Internet grows, some evil elements will be mixed into the new world melting pot. The trick is to inform good netizens, so we can all smother the bad guys out. We can let them know we don't want their kind here.
Here's a hint to those in predicaments like mine with WorldTouch: Do not take it to the BBB. You'll only get a form letter telling you that they don't get involved with problems like spamming. I've not yet received a response from the FTC regarding my complaint against WorldTouch, but I'm hopeful.
BytesSpeaking of spam
According to a July 14 report at http://www.abcnews.com, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has released a study that calls spam e-mail, a "waste" of user hours and a financial burden but draws the line at proposing any legislation to stop the problem.
The FTC says spam cannot be banned because the First Amendment protects free speech. However, there can be legislation against disguising the source of the spam, and the FTC report indicated a desire to prohibit companies from disguising the origin or content of their e-mail.
ABC also reported that everyday users of Internet services are becoming more reluctant to check e-mail for fear of finding dozens of spam messages promoting pornography or other shady services.
America Online users appear to be the most frustrated by the evil of spam, because they usually get more of it. AOL has provided users with filters that limit the amount of spam they receive, but the service admits that spammers have tools to get around those filters.
My suggestion to AOL users: Find another provider, preferably a local one that does not sell e-mail addresses to other companies.
Millennium on Wall Street
The year 2000 came early on Wall Street last week, but with few signs of the much dreaded Y2K bug.
According to Internet reports, on July 14 major Wall Street exchange and securities offices set their computer calendars forward to test for potential Y2K threats to their system.
Y2K (also known as the Year 2000 Bug, or the Millennium Bug) is a glitch in early computers that will incorrectly interpret the year 2000 as the year 1900. If the bug goes undetected and unrepaired, it could bring about serious inconveniences, including unpaid bills being marked as late, or magazine subscriptions being canceled before their time.
The Wall Street test on July 14 was part of a two-week series of tests to determine how trading might be affected by the current system. According to reports, only a few minor complications arose, but none was related to Y2K. Wall Street wrote them off as "communication problems."
Wall Street offices planned to test transactions on Dec. 29, 1999, Dec. 30, 1999, Dec. 31, 1999, and Jan. 3 and 4, 2000.
They will report their findings in a few weeks, on Aug. 10.
A different flavor of Java
Microsoft has once again violated the license agreement for the use of Sun's Java programming language, according to officials with Sun Microsystems in a recent report to http://www.cnn.com.
Sun filed a lawsuit in October of last year claiming that Microsoft added new features to Java for its Software Developers Kit for Java 2.0 and Internet Explorer 4.0. Now Sun says that the software giant has further violated the license agreement by making more changes in SDK for Java 3.0, Internet Explorer 4.01, and Visual J++ 6.0.
Microsoft, of course, maintains that it has not violated the agreement. With Microsoft's recent victories in the courts, Sun may find "Route 98," Microsoft's theme for its launch of Windows '98 and the future of the Windows operating system, a tough road to travel.
James Hanback Jr. is systems administrator for the Scene. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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