Jewish World Review May 7, 2003 / 5 Iyar, 5763

Leonard Pitts, Jr.

Leonard Pitts, Jr.
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Consumer Reports

Spambusters should start with the Africans | I am sick and tired of the Africans.

Sicker and more tired than I am of people trying to sell me home loans, ink cartridges and easy money-making opportunities. Sicker and more tired than I am of receiving newsletters I never requested from groups I care nothing about. Sicker and more tired than I am of offers to enhance certain highly personal body parts. Not to mention helpful pictorials illustrating the use of those body parts.

All that e-mail is annoying, but I place the Africans in a special category of aggravation usually reserved for cockroaches and telemarketers.

Because they won't take "Die, scum" for an answer. They will not go away. To the contrary, they have come after me with the same scam several times a week for what must be two years now.

The particulars change some, but the gist of the spiel never does. A high official of some African nation - Congo, Nigeria, South Africa - is supposedly in desperate need of an honest intermediary to assist in the discreet transfer of some obscene amount of money and he's heard that little old me might fit the bill. For my troubles, I am promised a generous share of the proceeds. All they need is my bank account number.

Yeah, that's going to happen.

But then, maybe you think I'm unduly suspicious. After all, if you can't trust strangers who contact you of the blue to offer you the moon on a pie plate in exchange for sensitive personal information, well ... who can you trust?

Cool, then. Give them YOUR bank account number. After all, if you check your e-mail, chances are good you'll find that the Africans are offering you the same opportunity.

Indeed, unsolicited commercial e-mail, otherwise called spam, otherwise called the kind of words most of us don't like our children to catch us using, has become downright inescapable in the last couple of years. According to the most conservative estimates, it now constitutes 40 percent of all e-mail, the overwhelming majority as fraudulent as that sent by the alleged Africans. One newspaper reports that the percentage is projected to top 50 percent as early as this summer.

The stuff is growing like kudzu at a prodigious cost in money, time and productivity. Thankfully, people have begun to notice. Recent days have seen a flurry of activity aimed at getting spam under control.

The state of Virginia just enacted what is said to be the nation's toughest anti-spam law. A number of other states and Congress itself are pondering similar statutes. Last week, the Federal Trade Commission held a three-day symposium on spam. America Online has filed suit against several spammers and teamed with rival Internet providers Microsoft and Yahoo to combat the glut.

The bureaucrats, lawmakers and Internet providers have recognized the plainly obvious - that what's at stake is nothing less than the viability of e-mail itself, its continuing value as a tool of communication and legitimate commerce. An innovation that once seemed to make life a little easier is rapidly becoming one of life's bigger annoyances. How long before people begin to decide it's not worth the hassle?

The problem, of course, is finding a solution that works. Spam filtering devices are partially effective at best. And as for harsher measures: how do you fine them if you can't find them? How do you throw the book at them if you don't know where they are? Junk e-mail, like the Internet itself, is such an amorphous entity that regulating it is not unlike herding cats or grabbing Jell-O in your fist.

So chances are, we're going to have to wait awhile for the technology to catch up with the problem. Fine, but whatever solution surfaces better be one that satisfies. I'm thinking of a button you could push that traces spam back to the computer it came from and causes it to explode in a big orange fireball. Or to melt into a smoking black puddle.

Hey, I'm not picky. Just so long as we get the Africans first.

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