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Spam Killer and Spybots

May 2003

Oh, the humiliation--being turned down for a credit card. My record of paying my bills on time is impeccable, yet I now have a bad credit rating. I blame spam.

Well, not spam in the strictest sense of unwanted e-mail. In this case, it was those spam telemarketing calls. What happened was that for unknown reasons, my credit card company (avoid GM Card) started sending my statements to the wrong address. It was a card that I used rarely and had always paid the full balance, so I assumed when statements didn't come that I simply hadn't used the card for anything.

I was wrong. Either I or a thief had used it. (I'll never know which.) And indeed I had owed them money for a year and a half. They may have tried to phone me, but since they had made unwanted marketing calls in the past, whenever I got a call from them I would just hang up.

One day when the same person called a few hours later, I thought, This is odd--telemarketers don't usually call twice. I took the call.

It was a collection agency saying I owed $295. I paid it on the spot, using another credit card. The lady said I'd receive a statement from the credit card company, but I never did. I called them, and they said that I would receive one from the collection agency. Ha ha.

Now that that collection is on my record, it's hard to get another card. I blame spam.

Good news on the telemarketing front, though. Thanks to an initiative by the Federal Trade Commission, as of July you'll be able to register for a new national "no call" list. You simply go to a web site (watch my column for more information), sign up, and then it's illegal for telemarketers to call you.

Once you sign up, your name will remain on the list for five years, at which time you can renew your registration.

The list will be made available in September to telemarketers, and in October the FTC will begin enforcing it, fining telemarketers up to $11,000.

If only they'd do something similar for e-mail. I'm up to over 100 spam a day. But it's unlikely, since e-mail is transnational: a law passed here wouldn't have much affect on the spammers in other countries. Plus, it's often hard to pin down the source of spam. Still, the European Union is going ahead with legislation, having put out a directive that will make unsolicited e-mail illegal as of October. Let's hope it works.

One of the reader's of this column pointed me to a promising new spam service called Mailblocks. Here's how it works: the first time someone sends you a message Mailblocks traps it and automatically generates a message to the person who sent it. The automated reply contains a picture with an embedded number, the idea being that only an actual person, not a computer, could perceive it. The sender then copies that number into a registration form.

Since spammers need an automated process for mass mailing, they are blocked by this procedure. Of course, the question is whether those who send you e-mail will be willing to register the first time they send you a message. The cost for this service is $10 for three years. I like the idea.

This reader also sent along some information about Spybot, free software which can detect and remove spyware on your computer. "Spyware"? As if you didn't already have enough to worry about with spam and viruses.

According to the Sypbot web site, "Spyware is a relatively new kind of threat that common anti-virus applications do not yet cover. If you see new toolbars in your Internet Explorer that you didn't intentionally install, if your browser crashes, or if you browser start page has changed without your knowing, you most probably have spyware. But even if you don't see anything, you may be infected, because more and more spyware is emerging that is silently tracking your surfing behavior to create a marketing profile of you that will be sold to advertisement companies."

PC Magazine gave Spybot high marks. On the Macintosh side of things, the only free software that I could find for dealing with spyware is MacScan.

Thank you to government and to software developers for doing their best to protect us innocents from the evils of spam, telemarketing calls, viruses, and spyware. Now if they could just fix my credit rating.

© 2003 by Jim Karpen, Ph.D.

E-mail Jim Karpen