The rise of the sensitive spammer

The tale of the sensitive Mr Spammer

Over the weekend I received my favorite spam message to date.

I've been writing about spam for nearly four years, and because antispam vendors are always eager to share the dregs of what their spam filters catch with journalists to demonstrate their products' effectiveness, I've seen everything from tricky misspellings to image spam to the latest craze, PDF spam. And we've all seen those messages from name-your-favorite-deposed-African-dictator that begs for money. But this one is different, it simply begs for attention:

No text in the subject line except the familiar "Re:" As if Mr. Spammer is responding to a message I sent him with no subject line. Already he's attempting to get personal.

The message body is neatly typed with no gross misspellings, no images, no frills, but a very big if:

"Hello my friend! I am ready to kill myself and eat my dog, if medicine prices here are bad. Look, the site and call me 1-800 if its wrong. My dog and I are still alive :)"

Love the smiley face at the end.

What makes this spam unlike any other I've received is that Mr. Spammer purports to assume I care about his life and that of his dog. (Although I think he got the order wrong, to be effective he should really eat his dog first and then kill himself.). Spam lies -- we all know that -- so I don't really think that Mr. Spammer thinks that I care about him. But his message embodies yet another phase in the ever-changing life of unwanted e-mail -- call it sensitive spam.

Mr. Spammer has gone to some efforts to appeal to my sensitive side and human nature, assuming that I'd rather click the link than see him die and his dog digested.

Though we are friends, as he told me in his greeting, I'm sadly not that concerned about his life, nor am I looking for extremely good medicine prices. If the prices are bad and his life is lost, those are really not my issues. And I'm not much of a dog lover, anyway.

And I start to doubt his sincerity when he tells me to call 1-800 if the prices are bad. First off, if the prices are bad, he'll be dead, so why call? And, really, couldn't he have come up with seven more digits to make that number appear valid? A little more effort here, Mr. Spammer.

But that's me. What about all those people out there who have responded to e-mails that spell Viagra with 18 a's and follow links to "update their personal banking account information" from banks they've never heard of? I'm guessing if they've clicked on spam in the past, this one will hook them and good.

This message's "call to action," as antispam vendors call it, is the http link. If I were a more compassionate soul and really didn't want Mr. Spammer to even THINK that I thought his medicine prices were bad, I would maybe click on the link and check it out. But, c'mon now, whatever's going on at liftduck.cn -- cn is a domain for China -- can't be good. I'm not willing to risk my PC's safety and the ire of Network World's IT department just to make sure that Mr. Spammer stays alive.

Still, I have to say the message was successful in that it certainly did get my attention.

Bill Yerazunis, noted antispam filter writer, also has a favorite type of spam. His is the 'I am not a spam' spam, as he calls it, where the message states up front what's for sale. No excessive use of vowels, no images; just pure commerce.

Scott Weiss, founder of e-mail security company IronPort, finds amusing those spam messages that lift text from books in an attempt to fool filters. He likens it to dressing up like a police officer in an attempt to fool airport security.

Everybody's got their favorite spam message, what's yours?

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Cara Garretson

Network World
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