What To Do With Snake Oil Salesmen (and Other Spammers)

Another day, another wave of spam in my inbox. It’s very easy to pick out, for me, but my webmail provider doesn’t seem to have a system sophisticated enough to catch only the bad stuff; as soon as it starts blocking spam, it also starts blocking everything else along with it.

My first instinct, like that of many people, is to think up and appeal for highly punitive responses to spam. After all, spammers — at least, the ones who’re pushing viagra and seething malware through unsolicited email, and through comments and trackbacks on blogs — are committing a much bigger crime than most of us consider. Estimates about spam traffic often wave effusively at numbers ranging from 40% to 70% of total Internet traffic. I’d certainly believe a rate of around 50-60%, honestly. This is a lot of energy, wasted; a lot of time, a lot of computers messed up by the viruses these things spread; a lot of revenue lost to businesses who don’t engage in this kind of junk mailing.

But my first instinct is not, in the bigger picture, sensible. It’s not sensible because the Internet is not yet settled.

So let’s think of the Net as a rough-and-tumble Old West town. There’s only one Sherriff, and he’s got only one relcutant deputy, and he don’t want no trouble. Which means you can break any number of minor laws that nobody cares about, and he won’t do nothin’ to ya. Most of the citizens are not just law-abiding, though; they’re humane. They don’t go around robbing one another because, well, just because someone left his front door wide open doesn’t give you the right to rob him. They know the Golden Rule and they follow it, mostly.

And then, one fine dusty afternoon, a stranger rides into town. He’s not a thief, but if he were, the townsfolk would be quite okay with that. They know that the Sherriff has a penchant for basically shooting dead anyone who tries to steal from them. This guy, he’s an odd duck, but not in the menacing way that would scare the fine townsfolk. He’s got this cart out behind his horse, and it’s full of dictionaries and old novels and risqué novels and dodgy-looking tonics — oil of smoke and snake oil, for example — and Sears catalogs with extra coupons that nobody in town’s ever seen the likes of before, and all sorts of things, in that cart. His name is Jim Spammer.

Now, he starts making the rounds. Every house, it’s the same schtick, except in every house it’s a little different. Now, it’s all about what the man has to offer, not what the buyer wants or needs. He’ll give a grandma an erotic novel about a cowboy and a whore; he’ll try sell bullets to a man without a gun. People who’ve never been sick a day of their lives have Oil of Smoke wiggled before their eyes, and are informed that this is what they need to be healthy and happy and virile again. Women are urged to buy things to ward off their impotence. He piled up dictionaries on the table of a blind man, and pushes the sell.

And it’s not like it’s just the sales pitch that’s a pain. The cart, it’s big: it takes up the whole street, and when he’s making the rounds, nobody can ride past; he slows traffic, sometimes to a halt, and sometimes when he’s let into someone’s house, after he leaves, the door doesn’t work right anymore, or the whole house smells funny, and a window breaks later on, all of a sudden, for no apparent reason.

But you know, when it’s just the one guy, well, people can handle it. They don’t start calling the Sherriff to arrest him every time he shows up. They just look out the side window and get a glimpse, see the cheap suit and the pomaded hair, and hush up and don’t answer the door.

That works for a while. And then, the day arrives. It arrives differently in each house, and accompanied by rumors and muttering and some speculation, but it arrives at every house in the end. Another man is in town, peddling just the same as Mr. Pomade. Now there are two men to watch out for. Then three, then four, then five, ten, twenty. Worse, these guys have developed a new trick; they dress up the same as the local sherriff, or minister, or butcher shop owner, or whoever, and when they go on their rounds, they try to hide their faces from view of the window. People think they have a legitimate caller and open the door and what do you know? — another goldarn sales pitch.

Citizens living in this little Old West town have some choices about what they can do, at this point. Firstly, they can just sit through the pitches — though more and more they find they have more of these peddlers knocking on their doors, until it’s almost constant. Nobody admits to buying anything, though, so they wonder how these bastards can be making a living. Yet they keep at it, and keep at it; the sound of a knocking door starts fights. It breaks the peace of the small town. So they call a town meeting down at the church, the biggest open space, and talk it over.

Not one of the peddlers shows up, of course, but the townsfolk, they talk about what to do.

“Lock ’em all up, and throw away the key, I say,” hollers old Jebediah, waving a fist and stomping a booted foot onto the wooden floor for effect. People nod; it’s an anger they share, but the Sherriff shakes his head.

“Naw, folks, I reckon that ain’t gonna work. Firstly, where in tarnation can I lock ’em all up? And secondly, don’tcha reckon more fellahs just like ’em wouldn’t just move right on in and take their places? And who gets to feed these fellahs, anyway? I’m not gonna do it.”

The townsfolk all consider this for a few minutes, mumbling about the Sherriff but in their hearts they know that the lock-em-all up approach wouldn’t for these reasons. “And we cain’t run ’em outta town, neither; they’ll just come back, dressed different, and even if they don’t, they’ll just start picking on some other little town, till they get run outta there too, and then they’ll come back here.”

A local shop-owner pipes in: “Why don’t we just shoot ’em, then?”

People are angry enough to pause and think it over, but, well, these are the same people who don’t feel the urge to rob their neighbours even though their neighbours’ front doors are almost never locked. They know it’s overkill, literally. “And anyway, how could anyone find them?” the Sherriff asks. “Nobody knows where they live, or how many of ’em they are. And if we get harder on them than we are now, who knows but they might start really being nasty.”

“And it just ain’t Christian-like”, the minister adds solemnly.

Everyone nods their heads disappointedly.

Then a local businessman says, “Well, these boys are blockin’ up the roads. I figger we could maybe rig up somethin’ that makes their carts stick? Maybe some kind of riser in the middle of the road, or somethin’. Know what I mean?”

“Yeah,” says a farmer from beside the road, “But then how do I get my wheat to elevator? I mean, I gotta transport m’crops, you know.”

“Yeah, but we could make one road just for big transport, you know…”

This gives pause. Nobody’s built a new road in a while. It takes money. And time. But it could work, maybe.

“What else could we do?” the Sherriff asks.

“We could tax ’em,” says Jethro, who works in the post office. “We could charge ’em a tax on every dollar they make, and that’d rob some of the profit. We wouldn’t get rid of ’em, I don’t think, but we could at least get something for putting up with them.”

“I reckon, though, Jethro,” the shop owner says carefully, “That this would mean whoever bought something would have to, you know, ask for a record. We’d have to track the tax. If it were too small, the tax, then it’d be more trouble than it was worth, making sure they actually paid it.” He smiles. “And besides, people would have to start admitting that they buy certain kinds of things from these fellers.” An embarrassing number of townsfolk blush.

“My grandma answers the door every time there’s a knock, these days,” a little dirty-faced boy adds. “She just don’t get it; she figgers these salesmen are chamrin’ young gentlemen. She even buys junk off ’em, junk she don’t even need.”

“And as long as there are people like that in this town,” the Sherriff adds, “We’ll have men like these peddlers around.”

“Well, I got me an idea,” says the town blacksmith. “Listen here, I made me a peephole in the middle of my door. Big enough for me to see out, but small enough that they can’t pitch through it, so’s it’s kind of like my security. I wish we din’t have to lock up our doors, and peep at whoever’s knockin’, but that’s the way it’s turned these days. Anyway, I can sell you locks, and install peep-holes in your doors, for a fee. It’ll save y’all a lotta headache.”

Amid the nodding heads and the people asking how much a lock costs, the shopkeeper speaks up: “Well, that’s fine as far as your front doors go, but it won’t unblock the roads. And these here fellers found a trick that worked when y’all were lookin’ out your windows at them, didn’t they? Besides, it sounds a little like every man for himself; what’s poor folks gonna do? Can’t afford a lock and a peephole, you gotta just live with the salesmen? I figger they’ll find another one for the peepholes, reaaaaal quick. And I think the road is gonna be the solution.”

“Wait a minute!” shouts the local banker. “I got it! What we need is a system where people prove their intent by putting their money where their mouth is. I don’t know exactly what we can do to set it up, but imagine this: imagine a town where knocking on any door at all, any door whatsoever, if you hadn’t planned for it and made prior arrangements for a social, cost you money… let’s say, five cents.” The townsfolk gasp. Five cents is, to many of them, a good bit of money for something as mundane as the right to knock on a door. “Maybe we could charge five cents more if you’re bringing a package through the door with you.” More gasps. “Now, the money would go straight to the person whose door you’re knocking on. Maybe you’ve got a peephole, maybe not. Doesn’t matter; as soon as there’s a knock on the door, that money is yours, and you can choose what to do with it. If you answer and it’s your long lost brother, you of course give him back the five cents. If it’s a neighbour borrowing an egg, or dropping off something nice, then fine, you give her back her five cents. But these peddlers, you see, we take a hard line with them. The five cents is forfeit at the discretion of the recipient of the call. Meaning, if it’s some peddler, you can keep the five or ten cents. And of course, if you want, you can let them put in the five cents, look through the peephole, and then tell them to get lost, without even opening the door.”

People are nodding. “Sounds like a good idea, but tell me this,” says the blacksmith. “Won’t it stop people from knockin’ on doors by surprise? Havin’ to pay five cents, ain’t that gonna slow down social calls an’ such?”

The banker shakes his head: “No, no. Listen to me. You wouldn’t actually be paying five cents to visit. The five cents just buys you the right to knock. If we all agree that nobody will answer a door that’s knocked on without the five cents — at least, without a special code knock, or without a previous appointment, or something — then everyone will just make sure to have five cents on hand. Five cents isn’t really that much to give up, especially if your intentions are good; in that case, you’ll get your five cents back every time; or, at least, if someone keeps your five cents, you can keep his five cents next time he comes knocking on your door. And of course you can remember never to knock on his door again.”

“And what do you get out of it?” asks the shop owner wearily.

“Well, listen. I could set this thing up so that I held the deposit for everyone’s knocks in escrow; I could get some interest from everyone’s floating desposits, since I guess it’s more likely these change accounts would be handled by a kind of credit system, which would go debit in the end. But it’d be easier if everyone just used, you know, cash; it’s be easier if everyone just decided from the get-go to recognize only one standard of payment, make the deposit and its refund immediate. At the very least, it’d slow these peddlers down — they’d have to keep going home to pick up more nickels — and it’d cost them a lot of coin, I figure, as long as people understood that they’re well within their rights to keep that deposit in the case of unwanted solicitation.”

The townspeople look at him carefully. There has to be an angle, they figure, but in fact, there isn’t. He really has thought it through, and some time ago decided it would be better to get some damned peace and quiet at home than to make more money off the townsfolk.

“I dunno,” says the shopkeeper, “but it seems to me that the roads…”

“… need to stay as they are!” interrupts the farmer.

“I got a few dozen peepholes made up all ready to go, folks,” starts the blacksmith, and the banker turns to leave.

“Whatever you want, people,” he mutters to nobody in particular. “You’re gonna come back to my idea, just you wait and see.” And then he leaves the church, vowing to buy a lock for his front gate. Better nobody can even get to the door to knock at all; if the town won’t work together, then the best a man can do is look out for himself better than everyone else. But they’d come begging for that idea, he was sure of it, as he walked down the streets of the town, seeing the peddlers seated on porches and verandas, waiting for someone, anyone, to come home.

Let that be a lesson to us all. I think about it. You can afford a nickel — or fifty cents, even — as a temporary nonspam assurance deposit on every email you send. It’s only a deposit, for 99% of the cases in which you’re sending an email in good faith. You’d get the money back most of the time, in other words. You could have a floater account and deposit into it once, and keep it going. You, at least, could afford this much better than a spammer. You’d be making a very small temporary sacrifice; spammers would be making a continual permanent one. Imagine being able to say, “If only I had a nickel for every piece of spam email I ever got!” In addition, this would encourage people to be more vigilant about their email — about sending it, in the borderline cases, and about receiving it in the case of people who these days are too computer-illiterate, lazy, or thick-headed to tell the difference between real email and junk email.

Maybe a deposit would only be required to begin an exchange; or maybe we could construct lists of deposit-exempt senders. The possibilities are endless, I suppose, but then again so are the possible bugs. But it seems to me some system other than mere filtration will be necessary if spam keeps going as it is, and if electronic life keeps growing in importance as it now is.

6 thoughts on “What To Do With Snake Oil Salesmen (and Other Spammers)

  1. Interesting idea, but with all the spoofed headers, etc., it might be kind of hard to pin an email to a specific sender. I imagine that it is probably possible, but I think it would be a pain to implement. The only people for whom it would be guaranteed to work are the people who send legitmate emails.

    And another thing: who would control this system? Right now we don’t have a universal policing body on the internet.

    Oh, and Old West ministers were generally very educated men. They probably wouldn’t say things like “It just ain’t Christian-like.” ;)

  2. Ha, I thought about whether the minister would speak in high or low English, and went with low-English not because I thought he’d be speaking for the townsfolk, and would have put on some of their dialect. Maybe it’s a jitter tho.

    As for the rest, let’s see.

    Almost everything in the header content is, yes, spoofable. Everything except the sender IP, as far as I know. Now, right now, the way IPs work is that they change every time you connect. There’s a range of IPs available to customers at this or that ISP. So that’s something that would have to change, probably in a way I can’t myself think up since I don’t know quite enough about IPs. Secondly, if we implemented it over long range, it wouldn’t work. But if we implemented a kind of escrow system that functioned like a series of locks in a seaway, it might function better.

    That is, you wouldn’t have to pay the recipient directly; after all, this would be like being required to put a nickel in the hand of a person after he or she answered the door. That clearly would never work; but if you had to put a nickel in a slot, and opnly upon that condition would you be able to knock on the door, that’d be different. (I didn’t include this in the allegory because I couldn’t think of a way to make a doorknocker that worked only when a nickel was supplied.) Think of it this way:

    When you send an email, you’re required to pay a postal-escrow; the money is deducted from your floating account to the outgoing mail server. Spoofed headers don’t matter because the charge is being deducted from the sender’s IP-associated account. When the mail arrives at the incoming mail server, the name on the escrow holding changes over to the recipient; the recipient receives the email, and the new standard button at the top inquires whether the escrow should be refunded or claimed.

    One of the problems with my analogy is that email is more like postal mail than it is like peddlers. Of course, the difference is that the Post Office would never have accepted the kind of spam that we see traveling around. A few regulars, yes; those sweepstakes letters of old, yes. But if postal workers were carrying 40-70% spam, and only 30% real mail, everyone would be scrambling for a stopgap.

    Why is it that postal workers have never had this problem?

    Well, real mail weighs a lot. It’s expensive to produce mass spam on paper. But it’s also because postal systems have these little surcharges, manifested in the form of stamps or Air Mail seals and the like. It was always much cheaper to get your mail spam locally printed and delivered by kids for below-minimum wage. And, yeah, sometimes I used those coupons for Superstore. And that was good for superstore. It’s sad all the paper was wasted that way, but these bits of spam were, at least, loosely useful to me.

    However, we did not receive randomly-directed viagra ads. We did not get ads for Xanax and penis enlargement by the post, and flyer-carries never delivered offers of porn or fake offers of cheap household appliances for places that don’t exist. And flyer carries certainly didn’t plant bombs in peoples’ mailboxes, the way viruses do in peoples’ computers.

    And I think one of the main reasons is that spam online is absolutely free of cost beyond the startup fees. Here the economics are purely “end-profit” limited, and when there’s no attendant loss to undirected advertising, this will result in spam-napalming everyone and everything. It seems to me that introducing a surcharge to email services — especially a refundable one — built directly into the mail servers themselves, and relying not
    on header content but on the sender’s IP and the ISP’s relationship with the sender — would introduce the missing cost which is needed to create a disincentive to spam profusely.

    The important thing would be to find a rate that would not be onerous for people who use email regularly for legitimate purposes, but which at the same time would be punishingly limiting for people who send spam out indiscriminately.

    And here’s the beauty of the thing: nobody would control this system. It would take the form of a technological standard, which means some committee would get together and argue about it. But basically, you’re free to send email without an escrow registered to it; and my system is free to bounce it with a reminder that I require an escrow registration reference included for any incoming email from an address not on my “Auto-Accept” list. Nobody would actually have to police it, if the technology were built right. Instead, the system would sort of self-police.

    If my ISP is doing funny things with my escrows, I can change services. The right to change services would need to be in the domain of law. If you start keeping my escrows from legitimate mail, I can bug you about it but my ultimate recourse would be to refuse to send you more email, and ban incoming mail from you.

    And the charges would be so small that, after all, it would constitute a relatively painless experience for all except those who send spam email — and for them, the overhead would render spam too expensive overall.

    Perhaps, even considering the people who LIKE getting spam — I know at least one or two — one could consider a partial-refund system, which would give spammers incentive to at least target their sendouts to people who have at least to some degree appreciated their previous spam? This could help restrain the spam industry and make it become a real industry of directed advertising, instead of just the hillbilly buckshot game it is now.

    And best of all, there’s even groundwork for this out there: there’s legislation in the US, anyway, that allows one to attach a surcharge to unsolicited email. (I think I’m recalling this correctly.) This system would simply allow people to choose whether to collect without having to go out and get it for themselves. In other words, to use the words of Lawrence Lessig, it’s the introduction of a formality in order to empower people within the law.

    I don’t think a “universal policing body” would be needed for this, and in any case a “universal policing body” would likely do more harm than good to the internet. But we don’t need one. All we need is agreed-upon standards and some really right security. If there’s one thing people have incentive to develop good security about, it’s money. That’s why it makes sense to use money as the bargaining chip in this system. It didn’t take long (from a cultural perspective) to develop secure websites where credit cards can be safely used online. That depends basically on universally adopted standards and on very tight security. No universal police force necessary.

    Oh, and one more thing. This would also help to limit the annoying habit of many to use email CC and BCC lists as if they were mailing lists, when in fact mailing lists are ridiculously easy to set up, and freely available online.

  3. OK, I have a clearer idea of what you are talking about now. Not quite the same thing, but did you know that entities sending “business-oriented” emails are required to pay a surcharge on email sent to hanmail.net accounts? At least, that’s the way it was supposed to work. I think the system was implemented at one point, but it might have been canned. That’s what I’m assuming, at least, because I still get a crapload of spam in my hanmail account, and I can’t imagine all those people continuing to send spam when they have to pay a surcharge. I’m guessing that the system was a failure for one reason or another and they pulled the plug.

    Anyway, reasonable, practical idea in theory. I just wonder how long it will take to get a workable system in place. Last I heard, there was a very forceful backlash against the idea of “taxing” email, which is how people might see this.

  4. Right, spin would totally matter.

    And I would refuse to use hanmail on the simple grounds that there are much better services available for free. Everyone I know who has a hanmail account routinely discovers that his or her mailbox was filled with spam and that all real mails have been bouncing for days.

    But in any case, I’d assume the surcharge system wasn’t really all that integrated into the infrastructure of the network… and possibly that it was slapped together in a hurry based on the (already flawed) “design” of a senior company official. Like with a lot of the innovations online (and offline), I expect it to be pioneered by Europeans or Americans, and thereafter to spread (get adopted or adapted or copied) to everywhere else. And there’s be that uncomfortable phase with standards in transition, and then, finally, you’d get the real (practical) standard in place.

  5. Hanmail is indeed a bit frustrating at times. I keep it because I only use it for domestic mail, and I think I only had a problem with mail getting bounced once, and that was a while ago. Besides, I’ve had this email address for so long that it would be a pain to change. I remember trying to wean people off of my hotmail address (which I only use for mailing lists now). That took forever.

    Bottom line: like most people, I’m lazy, and I won’t move out until the roof falls on my head.

    As for the implementation of the system, yeah, it probably will be implemented in much the same fashion as other cyberspace institutions. I wonder who will pioneer it.

  6. Well, since I opened my website I’ve been using the site’s mail server, and it works well for me. Even despite a shift from one server to another, I’ve been generally happiest with this solution. But YMMV.

    As for closing out my old email address, I set it to send an outgoing message to anyone who emailed me, reminding them I’d switched to a new address and couldn’t guarantee that the mail would reach me if it wasn’t re-sent to that new address. *Most* people switched pretty quickly.

    I have no idea who would implement it, but I have this weird feeling that I *wouldn’t* want Microsoft to do it… but that the world would not adopt any single standard unless a giant like Microsoft was the one pushing it towards being a standard. One can wish otherwise, though, of course. I do!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *