Spam on the Rise
by Richard Darsie

 Related IT Times stories

 Previous Issues
Email s-p-a-m: It comes in many flavors, but none have any meat (May 1999)

You Asked...About Email Filters (Mar 1998)

Other Resources

 UC Davis Email Postmaster Spam Prevention page

Tips for Dealing with Spam

Direct Marketing Association E-mail Preference Service

"The Rising Tide of Spam: More than ever, a big drain on our time and money," Joyce Slaton,, March 18, 2002

"Spam Flood Forces Companies to Take Desperate Measures," Stefanie Olsen,, March 21, 2002


You AskedQ. Lately I have been receiving increasing amounts of junk email, some of which is very offensive. Is UC Davis doing anything about this problem? Is there any way to prevent these messages from reaching me?

Yes, spam is an increasing problem, and not just at UC Davis—all the UC campuses as well as other universities are grappling with this issue. You may have heard of spam filtering systems. Unfortunately, spammers often outwit these systems faster than they can filter out the offending email. Our options for dealing with spam are limited.

Historical Perspective
Once upon a time, there was a big, bad company (well, ok, a small, bad company) that had a wonderful, awful idea—they would make money by advertising their services with a massive email campaign on the Internet. But doing this so enraged the denizens of the Internet that they rose up and with one voice created so much bad publicity that the offending company went out of business. (They also took down the company's mail server by overloading it with complaints.)

Though this may sound like a fairy tale now, it actually happened long ago, in the formative days of the Internet when it was much smaller and mostly non-commercial. But times have changed, and unfortunately mass email advertising—better known as spam—has become all too widespread. And the problem is growing fast: in the last six months alone, the total volume of spam email sent over the Internet has doubled. (For more background on spam, see "Email s-p-a-m: It comes in many flavors, but none have any meat," IT Times, May 1999.)

Can the campus filter spam so it doesn't reach me?
UC Davis already does this to a small degree. But there are a number of issues that complicate any attempt at large-scale filtering of email messages.

Many Internet Service Providers, including the largest, AOL, implement filtering of spam messages for their customers. These filtering services they use are designed to block emails which come in from certain unwanted spamming domains (a "domain" is simply a related group of Internet addresses-for example, everyone at UC Davis is a member of the "" domain). Some of these filtering services add domains to their database in response to complaints. But others are more proactive, searching the Internet for spammers and adding any they find to their database, even in the absence of any evidence of spamming. In fact, some UC Davis departments have mistakenly been added to such lists in the past, and have found it very difficult to get removed from these lists. Thus filtering systems often catch innocent domains in their nets.

Another problem about filter lists is that spammers have proven to be dismayingly effective at thwarting them. By using a variety of techniques, from faking the address of origin to bouncing messages off mail relays in remote geographical locations, they seem to be able to find ways to deliver their unwanted solicitations in spite of all efforts at stopping them.

For a number of reasons, most due to the fact that campus technology coordinators are unwilling to risk filtering legitimate messages that campus members may wish to receive, UC Davis does not use an external spam filtering service. Instead, the Campus Data Center maintains its own small list to filter all messages from about 80 particularly egregious spammers.

What can I do about spam?
You have several possible courses of action:
  • Simply delete all unwanted messages without reading them (you can usually tell from the subject line of a message if it is spam). If your volume of spam is low, this is certainly the quickest. But it will do nothing to prevent the flow of spam.
  • Never reply directly to a spam message to complain, as the "From" address is almost always faked. Instead, follow the directions at the UC Davis Spam Prevention site. Here you will learn how to inspect the headers of spam emails so you can figure out the messages' domains of origin. You can then send an email to that domain's postmaster (usually, postmaster@domain or abuse@domain) complaining about the spam. If you receive a lot of spam, this approach can demand an unacceptably large amount of your time.
  • Experiment with using filters on your email client. (See "You Asked" in the March 1998 IT Times for an introduction to email filters.) It may be wise to attempt filtering spam messages to a separate folder you create instead of to the trash directly, as you may end up inadvertently deleting a message you'd actually like to see. Again, some experimentation is called for.
  • The Direct Marketing Association (DMA) has a Web site where you can register your email address to have it removed from any lists used by member companies of the DMA.

If after trying all of these steps, you are still finding spam burdensome, and especially if you are receiving spam from a limited number of addresses or domains, then contacting may be an option. But this should be a last resort (except in the particular case of child pornography, which should always be immediately reported to and the Campus Police Department).

The bottom line is that there is as yet no silver bullet for killing spam.


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