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Careful What You Say To A Spammer

Or perhaps more importantly, watch how you say something to spammers.

Once upon a time, I used to reply to spammers every so often. I would send them a piece of spam for one of my services and ask them how they liked being spammed in return.

Naturally, since the vast majority of spam is sent with bogus return addresses, I was only able to reply to a few of them (but there are other tactics one can use to respond to most spammers) that would actually use a legitimate return address. These tended to be sites that were advertising various real estate services ‘ most of them useless.

The mistake I made was replying to them using my actual e-mail address. Most of them I never heard anything from. Some of them actually wrote back and said they understood my position, and thought my spamming them back was a fair thing to do.

And some of them obviously did not appreciate my comments, and decided to attempt to exact a little revenge for my having the nerve to object to their wonderful spam! How could I be so bold?

I began to see bounced messages showing up in the inbox belonging to the e-mail address I had used to respond to the spammers. Not a whole lot, just a few. That can usually mean a couple of things.

Most commonly, it means that someone who has your e-mail address in their address book has had their computer infected with a virus. Many of these viruses will pick random e-mail addresses from the victim’s address book and use these as the ‘From:’ address when they send copies of the virus out to other addresses in the address book.

It’s not unusual to see a few bounced messages come back out of the blue since the virus has attempted to send itself out to other people using my e-mail address as the ‘From:’ address. The mail server has no way to tell that the e-mail has a forged ‘From:’ address, so I end up with the bounced message informing me that the message could not be delivered because a particular destination mailbox no longer exists. Sometimes the server will detect the virus in the e-mail message and refuse to deliver it to the intended mailbox and bounce it back to whatever “From:” address is on the message.

It works pretty much the same way if I were to send a traditional letter through the mail to an address that does not really exist. Before I send it, however, I put my neighbor’s return address on the envelope instead of mine. When the post office on the receiving end discovers that the delivery address is nonexistent, they are likely to return it to my neighbor since I used his address for the return address. He, of course, has no idea how or why he ended up with a returned letter that he has never seen before.

With a virus, I will sometimes see a flurry of these bounced messages over a period of days or maybe even a week or so. Eventually, the person whose computer has been infected with a virus discovers the virus and eliminates it, and the bounced messages stop arriving.

The circumstances with the bounced messages I was receiving was different, and did not fit the typical profile of virus-borne e-mail messages. They arrived sporadically and over quite a long period of time.

Another tip-off was that I had received one or two messages indicating that I had signed up for access to some particular kinds of web sites, that might, ah, be considered ‘questionable’ by some people, if you know what I mean. Obviously, someone was using my e-mail address as their ‘From:’ address and sending out spam, viruses and who-knows-what-else.

I guess their intent was to cause me some grief, but that never really happened. I never received anything from anyone who had received any of the bogus messages, so perhaps their campaign was limited in scope. And with hundreds of e-mail addresses available for me to create, and circumstances that made that particular e-mail address quite expendable, the obviously amateur attempt to harass me actually just served to amuse me and teach me a few things about spammers.

I’m sure that not everyone who has, or ever will send a spam message is the scum of the Earth. But I do firmly believe, you will find a disproportionate number of scumbags in a group of spammers when compared with other segments of the population. Murderers and child molesters excepted of course!

The lesson here is that if you intend to respond to a spam message with the intent of informing the spammer just what you think of them, be sure to use a bogus e-mail address yourself. You do not want them to begin a campaign of harassment against you using an e-mail address that you value and would like to continue using.

I feel a little hesitant about advising anyone to send e-mail using a bogus address, but with the ruthless, relentless tactics in use by spammers, and an understanding of just how ticked off you can get from receiving a seemingly endless supply of their crap, I feel that spammers deserve whatever anonynous revenge anyone is capable of dishing out.

I handle this by setting up a dedicated e-mail account in my e-mail client application for replying to spammers. The address is of course a bogus one. I won’t make the mistake of turning a legitimate e-mail address over to a spammer again by replying to their spam messages from a valid e-mail account.

The easiest thing to do is probably to just set up an e-mail address on one of the free web-based e-mail services, and use that to send your compliments and kind words to the spammers of your choice.

Also, if you are going to hit ‘reply’ and direct the reply back out through your dedicated bogus e-mail account, be sure you ‘scrub’ the message first. Most people have their e-mail client application configured so that it sends the original message as part of the reply when you hit ‘Reply’ to an e-mail message.

Make sure you remove any references to your name, e-mail address and anything that looks like it could be a tracking code of some kind before the message is actually sent. Many times spam will arrive in HTML or ‘rich text’ format and these formats can easily hide things from you. As a result, your e-mail address, name or some other piece of code could reside inside the message that will give you away as the sender of the message and you would never see it.

A quick way around this is to change the format of the message to ‘Plain Text’ before you hit the ‘Send’ button. This will reveal the message’s entire contents and you can check it to make sure it has nothing that will allow the spammer to trace it back to you.

Sure, a message that was originally formatted with HTML looks pretty ugly after you change the format to plain text, but who cares? The point is to prevent the spammer from finding out who really sent the message and they will surely recognize the text version of their original HTML spam message.

I’m sure the vast majority of spammers don’t bother taking the time to figure out who sent them a nasty message, but obviously, my experience suggests that some of them are more deranged than others and may try to get back at you if they get hold of your e-mail address.

I actually responded to a spam e-mail message from China once and the spammer responded back to me, which led to an exchange of messages for a short time. He was a real piece of work. He Was quite condescending and cocky and threatened to hack my web site.

After a quick check of his web server, I saw that his web site was hosted on the same type of server that hosted my site. I informed him of this discovery and reminded him that he certainly was not the only person on the planet that knows how to hack a web site. I also took note of the fact that his was a much larger site that obviously did much more business than my little site that was esentially little more than a hobby at that time. In other words, he had a lot more to lose than I did.

After a short time I suggested that we both go our separate ways and forget that we had ever been in touch and he readily agreed. I don’t know much about how he spends his time, but I certainly did not care to spend much more of my time trading threats with him.

As I’ve pointed out many times, not many people hate spam much more than I do. And some will argue that replying to spammers with a bogus e-mail address is a complete waste of time. It does however, make me feel like I at least had a chance to inconvenience them slightly or perhaps tick them off a little bit. So it is something I will continue to do, and feel a bit better as a result.

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