CyberWatch Column


Junk E-mail


Professor of Computer Information Systems

Norwich University, Northfield, VT

This is another in a continuing series devoted to how ordinary people can protect themselves when using the Internet.

Unsolicited commercial e-mail (UCE) is derisively known as "junk" e-mail but also, much to the distress of the Hormel Corporation, as "spam."  Junk e-mail is spawned by foolish or unscrupulous people who send out thousands or even millions of identical messages to unwilling recipients.  Junk e-mail clogs victims' in-baskets and wastes their time as they open these unwanted messages and take a few seconds to realize they are junk.  Junk e-mail advertising pornography may be highly offensive to the recipients or to their parents. Junk may even push people's e-mail systems over their server limits if they are not picking up their messages regularly; in such cases, additional wanted e-mail may bounce because the mail-box is full.

Most junk e-mail uses forged headers; that is, the senders know they are doing something wrong and they deliberately put misleading information in the FROM and REPLY fields to avoid receiving angry responses from the victims of their rudeness.  Forging e-mail headers is illegal in the states of MA, VA and WA.

In one famous case, a clueless college student sent out junk e-mail messages and followed the instructions in his spam kit by putting a made-up REPLY address using "" without checking to see if there really was such a domain.  The owner of this reputable floral delivery service, Tracy LaQuey Parker, was none too pleased when her system was flooded with over 5,000 bounce messages and angry letters from customers..  She sued the student as was awarded over $18,000 in damages.

Don't buy products or services from anyone who has sent you junk e-mail.  If they are unprofessional or stupid enough to use such methods of advertising, they don't deserve either your business or even your trust.

  • Don't assume that the FROM address is correct, because often it is either non-existent or, worse, fraudulently misrepresents the origin by pointing to a legitimate business that is completely innocent of wrong-doing.  And never bombard the owner of the FROM address with multiple copies (or even one copy) of abusive e-mail (a practice known as mail-bombing), since you will likely be reaching the wrong target.
  • Never respond to the address listed for removal from a junk e-mail list unless you know the organization who sent you the message.  Since bounces (returned e-mail due to bad addresses) never reach them and there is no incremental cost for sending out addresses to unwilling people, these operators really don't care how you feel about the junk they send.  Therefore, these unethical scumbags use the REMOVE function primarily to harvest correct e-mail addresses so they can sell them to someone else.
  • Don't visit the URLs listed in junk e-mail messages.  Some of them are deliberately mislabeled and may bring you to offensive Web sites.
  • If there is a toll-free number listed in the junk message, you may use it at the sender's cost to let them know how you feel about being on a junk e-mail list.  However, never be rude to the people answering the phone; in general, they are poorly-paid employees who have no responsibility or even knowledge of the sleazy methods being used to reach the public.  Just ask to speak to a manager so that the perpetrators' cost of doing business can be increased.
  • If you really feel angry about a particular e-mail and you have the time and technical know-how, it is possible to locate the Internet Service Provider or Web-hosting service that carries an offending Web site.  Sometimes, a well-written report can result in cancellation of the perpetrators' Internet access and perhaps even domain registration.
  • If you are involved in an e-mail discussion group (especially an unmoderated group) about a specific topic, do not post e-mail to members of the list on a subject that is outside the topic area. 
  • If you see inappropriate messages on a e-mail list, do not reply to the entire list:  reply only to the sender, with possibly a copy to the moderator if there is one.  And be polite.
  • Last, in case the message has not already come through the vigorous invective above, do not send junk e-mail yourself, nor allow your children to send junk e-mail.
  • ChooseYourMail < >

  • Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial Email < >
  • “Fight Spam on the Internet”  < >
  • < >
  • JunkBusters < >
  • Spam luncheon-meat fan club < >
  • “Tips For Consumers:  What You Should Do About Unsolicited Commercial E-mail” (1998) from the Better Business Bureau < >