Junking the junk-mailers

In the small town where I live, I have to make my daily pilgrimage to the local post office to collect my mail.

By Jeff Bairstow
jbairstow@pennwell.com

In the small town where I live, I have to make my daily pilgrimage to the local post office to collect my mail. In the post office box area there are three large trash cans where people drop their junk mail unopened and unread. Needless to say, these cans have to be emptied several times a day even though our post office is quite tiny. I've often thought it would be instructive for the junk mailers to see what happens to their carefully constructed products in the seconds between opening of a mailbox and rapid deposit in the trash can.

I've long ago adopted the same technique with the mass of junk e-mails that I receive every day. If I don't know the sender, a quick flick of the "delete" key consigns the junk item to the "deleted items" file without opening the offending message. I'm also pretty fortunate because PennWell has an active spam filtering program that eliminates much of the junk mail before it reaches my mailbox. Nonetheless, I still get upwards of 50 junk e-mails per day on my PennWell e-mail. My PennWell e-mail address is public knowledge so I am constantly being added to spammers' lists without my consent.

You can argue that the spammers have a constitutional right to bombard e-mail recipients with their mortgage offers, drugs without prescriptions, and get-rich-quick schemes. Much as I value the constitutional right to free speech, I value more my right to actively ignore these peddlers.

You can also argue that PennWell with its multitude of trade magazines, web sites, and print and e-mail newsletters is contributing to this ceaseless tide of junk mail. However, PennWell's magazines are largely offered to controlled circulations; that is, subscribers have to request the publications on an annual renewal basis and be qualified readers. No request, no Laser Focus World in your mailbox.

We do ask subscribers for their e-mail addresses so we can send them the e-mail newsletters associated with particular print publications. And every e-mail newsletter that we send out has a link to unsubscribe in a matter of seconds. Unlike many e-mailers, we do actually remove people who request to be taken off the e-mail list. In fact, I see a weekly report of all the e-mail newsletter mailings that summarizes the numbers of e-mails dispatched, messages returned, and unsubscribe requests.

There's not a lot we can do about most spammers. The offending spammer can be just as hard to avoid as those irritating dinner-time telephone calls. The European Parliament recently passed a law banning unsolicited commercial messaging. In theory, only those consumers who have asked to be on a list will get commercial messages from that particular list. The prime difficulty is enforcement of the law-it's virtually impossible to penalize spammers using fake return addresses.

In the U.S., there has been sporadic legislative action against the spammers but both federal and state legislators are reluctant to impose restrictions. Powerful lobbying groups argue that much of the proposed legislation would restrict the rights of their member companies to engage in legitimate e-mail marketing. And states, such as Washington, that have anti-spam laws are very reluctant to file lawsuits, despite large numbers of consumer complaints.

So what can be done by individuals? The first and simplest action is to junk the address that is getting all the junk mail and set up a new personal address with a hard-to-construct identifier. Never give your e-mail address to anyone without checking the web site's privacy policy, particularly if the site requires you to "opt out" of mailings. Set up filters using the existing tools on your e-mail program. Inform your service provider of junk mail that you receive. The service providers can often set up spam blockers to filter your e-mail. And, finally, write to your Congressional representatives-but don't use e-mail!

ATD Online Editorial Director
jbairstow@pennwell.com

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