Diary of a deliberately spammed housewife

What happened when 'Penelope Retch' answered her spam e-mail

For Tracy Mooney, a married mother of three in the US, the decision to abandon cyber-sense and invite e-mail spam into her life for a month by participating in a McAfee experiment was a bit of a lark.

The idea of the Spammed Persistently All Month (S.P.A.M.) experiment -- which fittingly started on April Fool's Day -- was to have 50 volunteers from around the world answer every spam message and pop-up ad on their PC.

What would be the experience in 10 different countries when everyday people, armed with a PC and e-mail account McAfee provided for the Global S.P.A.M. Diaries project, clicked through the spam and chronicled the results?

Mooney -- who had observed the family's PC crippled just before Christmas by a virus -- was game, especially because McAfee was giving a free PC to all participants. She was selected to be among the 50 volunteers picked by McAfee out of 2,000 people who applied to be part of the adventure.

By the time it was all over, after every bank-account phishing scam, Nigerian bank scheme, and offer for medication, adult content and just plain free stuff had been pursued. "I was horrified," says Mooney, a realtor by profession. "It's all snake oil. I'm amazed at what true junk is out there when you're clicking through on e-mail."

McAfee is releasing the results Tuesday of its free-wheeling month-long S.P.A.M. experiment, done largely to illustrate -- if you didn't know already -- how spam is connected to malware and criminal activity, not to mention some of the slimiest marketing ever devised.

Each S.P.A.M. volunteer saw an average of 70 spam messages arrive in their inbox each day, with men receiving about 15 more per day than women. That was a lot to answer, but "Penelope Retch" -- the alias that Mooney chose for her S.P.A.M. adventure -- answered every single message.

The spammed life of Penelope Retch

In her guise as Penelope Retch, Mooney answered the e-mail that came into her account. "I'd see an interactive spam, open it, click on it and asked to be removed. That would only make it worse," she says. "They'd say 'no.'"

Whether trying to win an iPod online, get free travel brochures, weight-loss tea or Maybelline eyeliner, the effect of entering a home address was extreme. Immediately, a deluge of mail landed at her doorstep, directed to the attention of Penelope Retch.

"One of the mail offers I got was a [US]$7,500 credit card for Penelope Retch," Mooney says, noting that the sudden upsurge in junk mail left the neighborhood postman somewhat aghast. "It grew exponentially, so I stopped giving out my home address," she says, adding, "I am concerned about the environment."

Mooney clicked through on the phishing e-mails for fake Wells Fargo and other bank sites, sat back as the supposed government of Nigeria sought to give her an inheritance, and watched a foreign IP address go after a dummy PayPal account that had been set up as part of the S.P.A.M. experiment.

Overall, the most obvious result of the S.P.A.M. experiment was that the PC that McAfee had provided for the project noticeably slowed down, clogged up with spyware, Mooney says.

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Ellen Messmer

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