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by Lloyd A. de Vries

Vol. 31 - Spam, Scams & Shams

I've just found a new reason to hate spam.

I manage a couple of Web sites, The Virtual Stamp Club and one for a local community band. Recently, I started getting automatic messages from the VSC's hosting company that we were over our disk quota, and would either have to delete files or pay for more space.

We hadn't uploaded any major files recently, but I called the hosting company to see what another upgrade of the server would cost. The saleswoman said I should talk to tech support first, because there might be another solution.

And she was right. It wasn't the Web site, it was e-mail.

I didn't realize there's a default e-mail address, using the master account. Every "@virtualstampclub.com" message that doesn't get where it's going ends up in that mailbox.

Every message sent to random-generated virtualstampclub.com addresses that don't really exist.

Every message allegedly sent by random-generated virtualstampclub.com addresses that are bounced by the receiving e-mail system as spam.

The mailbox quota is set at 20 megabytes, and there was 20mb of spam in there.

The tech cleaned out all 17,000 messages for me, and now we're no longer pushing our disk quota.

An hour later, there were two new messages in that mailbox that I hadn't known existed. I deleted them. Twelve hours later, there were another 17.

So not only did I almost spend more money for space the spam was using, now I have a new regular chore: Cleaning out a mailbox no one knows is there.

Supposedly, Boeing fired its CEO, Harry Stonecipher, last year not for having an affair with a subordinate, but for carrying on the affair with her in e-mail.

Companies maintain that carrying on personal affairs, romantic or otherwise, in e-mail can be a violation of terms of employment, and grounds for dismissal. Several headline-grabbing court cases, including Martha Stewart's, used e-mail messages as key pieces of evidence.

Using corporate e-mail for personal correspondence is no more a theft from an employer, in my opinion, than using its telephones for a personal call.

The difference is that it's easier for investigators to document e-mail.

As the Wall Street Journal wrote, "You may think you've destroyed every last vestige of it, but it lives on, in some forgotten corner of some far-off server, waiting like Sleeping Beauty to be brought back to life by a zealous prosecutor or an overcompensated trail lawyer." Caveat emptor ("Let the buyer beware.") I know many of my online philatelic sales come during the buyers' working hours.

We've all seen the e-mail messages purportedly from a deposed African leader or his widow or son, asking our help in preserving or retrieving a family fortune. All we have to do is let the e-mail-writer have access to our bank account, and we'll get a share of the wealth.

It's just an modern version of an old confidence-game scam.

But there's another e-mail hoax, also with its roots pre-Internet: Collecting used stamps by requesting price lists with no intention to order the products.

In both cases, the Internet has made the scam easier, more convenient and cheaper to perpetrate.

In the lesser-known, and frankly less invidious, price list hoax, the sender sends you a message asking for your pricelists and catalogues. Oh, and make sure to use stamps on the envelope, the potential customer says.

Strangely, you aren't advertising that you're offering price lists. In fact, you don't produce a hard copy price list, or perhaps you aren't even selling tangible products!

I've received these at a variety of my e-mail addresses, some of which are never used in selling stamps and covers. When I've received them at the addresses that are used in commerce, I suggest they look at my Web site. Not once has one of these resulted in a sale.

The sender isn't interested in what you're selling, only in getting free postally-used stamps from your country.

Frankly, it would be much more honest for the person to just say, "I want postally-used stamps from your country, and I don't want to pay for them. Please send me a letter." But then, they probably wouldn't be the high-value stamps needed to send catalogues and pricelists.

Caveat venditor — let the seller beware!

Speaking of spam, here's a funny one I received the other day:

Dear sale,

Do confirm the availabilty and the individual prices for the various products as i was browsing through and saw some intresting items in your website so do give there prices for immediate purchase so that i can choose the quantity required and also confirm if i can forward my credit card details for the payment of the order as a acceptable mode of payment for the order and also i will like the order to be shipped via 2-3 days air service .Hoping to read from you soon concerning the quote.

<an address in Nigeria>

Note: In the course of browsing through i lost your website so do include it in your reply.

Not only has he or she forgotten my Web site's address, this person seems to have forgotten what it is I sell. Or maybe the sender thinks I will reply with that master account I mentioned above (the one that catches all the spam), giving him a chance to hack into my Web site.

The e-mail address that appeared to have sent the message was from South Africa, thousands of miles from Nigeria.

This message is probably intended to confirm that my e-mail address is valid and actually read by a human.

By the way, the country suffix for Internet addresses in South Africa is ".za," which stamp collectors know stands for "Zuid Afrika," or "South Africa" in Afrikaans.

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