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With no laws, no limits on unwanted e-mail ads

June 12, 2002 

Spam — the kind that clogs your e-mail inbox, not your arteries — is an irritant for most of us and has become a mounting and expensive problem for the companies that deliver the e-mail.

Think of it as cascades of junk mail and ads that the electronic mailman must deliver. And none of it bears a postage stamp.

The cost of equipment to process and store what officially is called unsolicited commercial e-mail is paid by Internet companies and eventually tacks a few dollars onto the rate the average Internet user pays, said Clifton Royston, president of the Hawai'i online service LavaNet and a veteran of the spam wars.

"It's been notably worse in the last four months," Royston said. "Since the beginning of this year, the rate has doubled."

There are no federal laws targeting spammers and Hawai'i is not among the 21 states with their own laws. The ones getting a free ride, legally and financially, are the businesses that use e-mail to hawk the latest low-interest mortgage rate, credit-card offer or cosmetic enhancement.

There are some steps everyone can take to stem the tide, but no simple, magic bullet to clean the mess for individuals or businesses. Purveyors of junk e-mail have found ways around even the more sophisticated baffles designed to sift it out.

Robert Schumacher, a Pearl Harbor submariner, guards his home e-mail address carefully and said he has managed to avoid the Internet cyberflood of ads.

Others aren't so lucky. Despite the filters that his Internet provider has in place, Aaron Stene of Kailua, Kona keeps shoveling the junk e-mail from his account.

"I still get a whole bunch of spam on a daily basis," said Stene, who subscribes to RoadRunner high-speed cable Internet service. "I try to use the 'block sender' feature in Outlook Express to no avail."

RoadRunner, which in Hawai'i is a sibling enterprise of Oceanic Cable, subscribes to a spam "blacklist." The list enables RoadRunner to weed out before delivery e-mail coming from known spammers and e-mail services that ignore complaints about the unsolicited messages, said Kiman Wong, RoadRunner's general manager here.

The e-mail that's blocked represents about a third of all that's delivered, Wong said.

The problem is the sheer volume, Royston said. Even if you follow the general advice to keep your e-mail address as private as possible, some e-mailers run programs that simply slam big e-mail domains (the free Web e-mail service Hotmail is a target) with thousands of guesses at possible addresses.

LavaNet is hit hard, too, he said, and two separate blacklists have been installed in filters, despite complaints from subscribers that legitimate messages get tossed out, too. On top of those, Royston is testing LavaNet's own filter that looks for other characteristics of junk e-mail and weeds out messages. He kept count for one week.

"The spam filters I'm using have intercepted 285 messages," he said. "And I'm still probably deleting 50-100 messages a day."

What needs to happen, Royston said, is the double whammy: consumers using avoidance tactics and government penalizing offenders. He cited a current lawsuit against New York advertising company MonsterHut, which allegedly has sent 500 million unsolicited ads, seeking a penalty of $500 per e-mail, based on false advertising statutes.

"There need to be laws against it," Royston said. "If there's no penalty it will always be worth someone's while to try it."

By Vicki Viotti, Advertiser Staff Writer. COPYRIGHT © 2002 The Honolulu Advertiser, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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