Thursday, January 06, 2005

ADVENTURES IN SPAM Having resolved, finally, to tackle my junk e-mail problem, it took me only minutes to make an important discovery: Much of the spam filling my inbox was the work of just one company.

The realization, while unexpected, was welcome: With a single outlet behind the stream of messages, my thinking went, working to staunch the flow might still be an exercise in futility--but at least it would be narrowly focused project.

And yet things soon grew more complicated.

Because while I'd gleaned, quickly, that the bulk of my spam was coming from a common source--messages had been arriving in a consistent format, each containing similar fine print--it was difficult to know exactly what to do with that information.

Consider this e-mail, arriving under the subject line "Shop All You Can" from DailyINF@www.premimve.com:

The appropriate response seems simple enough: Unsubscribe and be done with it, right?

Well...Not so fast.

For starters, notice that there are two sets of unsubscribe instructions in the e-mail.

Significantly, the top set ("visit: http://optout...") varied over the series of message I'd been receiving: A spam-to-spam comparison seemed to confirm that the opt-out instructions actually applied to the particular marketing proposition rather than the mailing list as a whole.

In other words, while following those directions might ward off future shopping spree come-ons, I'd probably continue to hear about "free" laptops; "free" t-shirts; online degree programs and much, much more.

It was the second set of unsubscribe instructions--consistent across about half of the e-mails--that seemed more promising. But a careful reading of those instructions left me puzzled:

If you would like to request from receiving further great offers from DailyFyi...
I found myself reading the clause over and over again.

Was a word missing? A phrase garbled? Had the notice been consciously designed to confuse?

The literal meaning of the instructions was, quite clearly, unclear.

And so I was left to wonder whether they represented a genuine ticket to a spam-free future, or were instead part of a clever, cynical spammer's fishing expedition for bonafide e-mail addresses.

With more questions than answers, I decided to do some digging.

THE HUNT: Working with what little information could be culled from the "Shop All You Can" e-mail, I began to make some inquiries:

1. An e-mail to cs@DailyFyi.com went unreturned.

2. Keying "http://www.dailyfyi.com" into my web browser retrieved a blank webpage.

3. A whois search for that web domain produced a phone number that led to an answering machine. A message left on that machine was not returned.

4. An e-mail to DailyINF@www.premimve.com (the email's return address) also went unreturned. Pointing my browser to "http://www.premimve.com" yielded another blank web page.

5. A whois search for Premimve.com listed the domain as registered to "hsmnetwork." Plugging the listed address into a Google search box placed hsmnetwork in the same location and suite number as a company called Hi-Speed Media.

I seemed, finally, to be getting somewhere.

6. But then e-mail inquiries to Hi-Speed Media went unreturned.

7. And a phone call to the number listed on Hi-Speed Media's web page got me nowhere: A computerized answering interface asked for the extension or last name of the party being requested. When none was provided, the interface announced that the operator was unavailable and the general delivery voice mail box was full.

8. A subsequent call to Hi-Speed Media's Corporate Vice President of Legal & Strategic Affairs Bennet Kelley reached Kelley's voice mail.

I was soon able to learn, though, that Hi-Speed Media was acquired in 2003 for $9 million plus stock options and milestone payments by ValueClick, Inc. (Nasdaq: VCLK), a company with a market capitalization of about $1 billion and 2003 revenue of $92.5 million.

According to this article, at the time it was acquired by ValueClick, Hi-Speed Media's primary business was "e-mail list rental." ValueClick's 2003 annual report explained further:

Through our acquisition of Hi-Speed Media, we now possess a database of more than 40 million opt-in email profiles that comply with recently enacted U.S. federal e-mail legislation. Through this business, we provide marketers with the ability to advertise their products and services to members of this email database.
An e-mail to ValueClick, naturally, was not returned.

(Inquiries to MetaReward Inc.--the company ostensibly renting Hi-Speed Media's e-mail list for the "Shop All You Can" offer--also went unanswered, as did inquiries with the press office and consumer education manager of MetaReward's parent company Experian, and the corporate responsibility and press offices of Experian's parent company GUS plc, a publicly-owned, UK-based conglomerate whose holdings include the Burberry brand.)

EXHAUSTION: As I sat back contemplating the futility of my quest, an amazing thing happened: The phone rang.

It was Hi-Speed Media's Bennet Kelley, sounding genuinely disappointed to hear that I'd encountered something I considered suspect. After assuring me that the unsubscribe instructions would be rephrased for clarity "right away," he asked that I forward him the e-mail in question to help expedite the process.

And sure enough, in only a few days, the messages I received from Hi-Speed Media's domain names all carried unsubscribe instructions that were unambiguous and to the point. About half carried this footnote:

While the other half explained:

TRIUMPH? Reveling in my apparent victory, I was more than willing to forgive Kelley and Hi-Speed Media for the stray "d" at the end of the word "received."

They were also off the hook, in my book, for sending the barrage of e-mails in the first place. After all, with a simple, transparent unsubscribe process in place, was there really any cause for complaint?

It was an interesting question, but one that soon seemed moot: Just a few hours later, a message from someone named "postmaster" arrived in my inbox. The title?

"Delivery Status Notification."

My attempt to unsubscribe had bounced back.

And the messages continued to flow.

Clearly, I'd been insufficiently cynical all along.

I e-mailed Kelley to tell him what had happened, and asked whether companies engaging in e-mail marketing might have a special obligation to insure that their unsubscribe procedures operate smoothly.

After a week without a response, I called him.

Kelley, though cordial, was in a rush to get off the line, telling me only that he'd forwarded my concern through the proper channels, and that he'd soon be back in touch with some results.

That night I got an e-mail from Kelley. While it failed to engage my question about the obligations of e-mail marketers, the message it did carry was promising:

You've been placed on our permanent unsubscribe list. Thanks for your patience.
The next morning I received two fresh pieces of spam from Hi-Speed Media.

CONTRAPOSITIVE is edited by Dan Aibel. Dan's a playwright. He lives in New York City.