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February 1, 1998

Leaving the back door
open for junk E-mailers

By Timothy C. Barmann

America Online has been one of the more vocal and active opponents of junk E-mail.

These are the unsolicited messages that are clogging up our E-mail in-boxes with offers of baldness cures and get-rich-quick schemes.

Junk E-mail, which is often called "spam," is a serious concern for AOL, since its sheer size makes it an easy target for bulk E-mailers. AOL, with 11 million subscribers, is the dominant Internet access provider in Rhode Island and around the country. The problem annoys its customers and burdens AOL's already taxed E-mail system.

But despite the company's efforts, which include law suits against spammers, the junk E-mail continues to flow into subscribers mailboxes.

One reason is that the company is inadvertently helping those mass marketers by offering them an easy way to grab the screen names of its subscribers.

It does so with its "member profile" feature where subscribers can enter and post personal information about themselves for any other subscriber to see.

(The profile feature has gotten a lot of attention recently because the Navy is attempting to discharge a nuclear submarine officer because he wrote "gay" as his marital status on his AOL member profile.)

AOL spokeswoman Tricia Primrose said the on-line service offers subscribers the option of filling out a publicly posted profile because the profiles can help people find old friends or others with like interests.

"Community is really a backbone of the whole AOL experience," she said.

AOL encourages members to fill out these profiles. The quick reference guide, which is a text file that comes with AOL's software says this: "Make sure you're in the Member Directory by creating a Member Profile. Without at least a basic profile, anyone wishing to contact you on-line will be unable to do so."

(That is a little misleading. If someone wants to contact you and they already know your screen name or E-mail address, they will have no trouble at all.)

When filling out a profile, you list your screen name, your real name if you choose, hobbies, home town, marital status and a personal quote. Your screen name is essentially your E-mail address, without the "@aol.com" suffix. Anyone who has your screen name can send you E-mail.

AOL's member directory makes it easy for any of its 11 million subscribers to find others with like interests.

For example, if you search for anyone who has "scuba diving" listed as a hobby and who lives in Rhode Island, 52 matches appear.

You could then strike up an E-mail conversation with any of those people, or try chatting with them if the directory indicates they are currently online.

Unfortunately, filling out a profile can also bring you E-mail from people you have no interest in hearing from.

These are the unscrupulous spammers who blanket AOL and the rest of the Internet with unsolicited junk E-mail.

It costs so little to send out hundreds or thousands of E-mail messages at any one time, that even a tiny positive response to these mailings makes it worth the effort for the spammers.

Bulk e-mailers "harvest" as many E-mail addresses as they can, and they love AOL's member directory because it makes the job easier for them. What's more, the member directory makes it simple for these companies to make targeted marketing lists based on the personal information that subscribers have volunteered in their profiles.

One bulk E-mailer, who sent out a junk E-mail messages hawking software that harvests E-mail addresses, noted what a good source AOL is for finding new E-mail address.

"Most member directories only allow you to search by city and state," the ad said. "With AOL, you can search by business type, hobbies, computer type, etc. This is the gem of all member directories."

The ad directed buyers of the software to send their money to someone named Dave Mustachi at a post office box in Coral Springs, Fla.

(A man who answered the phone at the number listed in the ad said he didn't want to discuss AOL.)

Junk E-mail is by no means found only on AOL. Practically anyone who has ever posted a message to an Internet discussion group has undoubtedly been on the receiving end of spam.

But while AOL is trying to close all the windows to keep spammers out, it is leaving the back door unlocked.

Primrose of AOL said the company is aware that its directory is used by junk E-mailers to harvest names. She said the company is working to eliminate that with both legal and technical blocks.

The company filed its first law suit on Jan. 6 specifically against the practice of harvesting screen names. AOL alleges that TSF Marketing and TSF Industries of Riverside, Calif. violated the federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act by collecting screen names. The suit was filed in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia.

AOL does allow you to set up lists of E-mail addresses you want to receive mail from and lists of addresses you want to block. Keeping your in-box free from junk E-mail means a subscriber must vigilantly update the "block" list.

Primrose said AOL is also looking into ways to make it technically impossible to harvest screen names from the service.

She said she couldn't elaborate on those efforts. "It's a game of cat and mouse and I would obviously be reluctant to reveal what we're doing because we want to stay one step ahead of the bad guys."

RUMORS: Once again, the Internet has proved to be a great source of misinformation. There have been messages circulating through E-mail and discussion groups saying the FCC is once again considering allowing local phone companies to charge Internet service providers a per-minute charge for each call it accepts from its customers. Such a provision, which the FCC looked at last year, would most certainly eliminate the "unlimited" price plans that most Internet service providers have, and would have an overall effect of raising the price of Internet access overall.

It turns out that the FCC is not considering any such proposal right now. The rumors have prompted the FCC to say as much on its Web site.

You can read all about it and see the background information at http://www.fcc.gov/Bureaus/Common_Carrier/Factsheets/ispfact.html. A previous Cybertalk column explored this issue as well at 030297.htm.

Timothy C. Barmann is a Journal-Bulletin staff writer. His column runs every other Sunday on the Computers and Technology page. Send him comments via e-mail at tim@cybertalk.com or U.S. mail, c/o the Journal-Bulletin, 75 Fountain St., Providence, R.I. 02902.