Nearly every American has at least one e-mail address — most have several. And each of them knows that unsolicited e-mail is becoming a tremendous problem for businesses, churches and individuals alike. In fact, every e-mail address is a potential target today for "spam," despite the great caution taken by many.
Spam now accounts for nearly 40 percent of all e-mail traffic and is estimated to cost U.S. businesses $8 billion to $10 billion per year. The total amount of spam lobbed to U.S. computer users increased 86 percent in just one year, from 140 billion to 261 billion messages, according San Francisco-based Brightmail, Inc. The anti-spam software company's recent study found that computers field an average of 6.2 spam items per day, nearly double the amount received in 2001. However, one executive in Los Angeles noted that, when his law firm installed a strong spam blocking software, the spam hitting his personal e-mail account dropped to about three messages a day compared to nearly a hundred he received without the software.
A lot of spam consists of innocuous product and service advertisements, but statistics compiled by analysts at Brightmail show that pornographic solicitations — including offensive text, Web page links or even graphic images — represent the fastest growing category of unwanted e-mail ads, doubling as a percentage of spam in the last few years.
So how do spammers get someone's e-mail address? What can be done to minimize one's risk and to protect one's family? Here are some helpful hints:
One recurrent problem with spam-blocking technologies is that they tend to snare some legitimate e-mail, too — such as e-mail newsletters requested and sometimes paid for by the recipient. In the vernacular of spam fighters, those legitimate messages are "false positives," while actual spam that is erroneously classified as legitimate correspondence is a "false negative." Such instances have led to grievances about overly broad filters.
Similar complaints occur when anti-spam blacklists are compiled which punish entire Internet providers or hosting services for the actions of a few clients, essentially a guilt-by-association approach. In both of these situations — "false positives" and blacklists — you may have to work closely with your e-mail service provider in order to receive those mass-distributed messages that you do want.
Pornography spam presents a particular danger to those fighting an addiction. "People who probably otherwise would never go to the seedy part of town to go into a dirty book store are very easily tempted when it comes into their home in this very private manner," said Jan LaRue, chief counsel of Concerned Women for America. "Pretty soon, they're obsessed with the stuff." That, of course, is the hope and intent of the pornography spammer.
Lewd e-mail promoting pornography may soon also pose more than just a technical challenge to businesses and organizations. It's set to become an acute legal problem, too. Graphic images appearing unbidden on personal computers in e-mail messages could qualify as evidence of a "hostile work environment," something forbidden by federal employment law. Porn spam could begin to crop up in sexual harassment complaints from employees offended by the material. Even if companies are not the source of such messages, they could be liable if managers know that porn spam is a problem and do not adequately move to address it.
Most major Internet providers — including America Online Inc., EarthLink Inc., Microsoft Corp. and Yahoo Inc. — have sued or are suing spammers and their affiliates. Many of these defendants are listed as "John Doe," meaning the companies could not determine their identities. However, filing the lawsuits gives them additional authority to subpoena service providers and others to try to track down the spammers.
America Online, for example, recently filed five federal lawsuits targeting spammers it accused of sending some one billion junk e-mail messages to its subscribers, The case resulted from about eight million individual spam complaints from subscribers, most of whom used the "Report Spam" feature AOL introduced last fall.
If you use e-mail, as nearly everyone does, spam will continue to be a reality for you, just as junk mail will continue to fill your home mailbox. But you can take steps to minimize its impact and its potential danger to you and your family.
The Internet is changing the way people shop, communicate ... and trash their marriages. Although there isn't a meeting of bodies, there's a meeting of souls, which is really what Christ was getting at, in some sense, of what adultery is all about.
A life of personal holiness is not easy. But it is important -- both for the Christian himself, for those he encounters and for those whose lives he might someday touch.