Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Stop forwarding me those stupid e-mails

Forwarding Emails
This post addresses the age-old question of "what you have to lose" when you forward one of those e-mails that asks that question, as in "Maybe Bill Gates will share his fortune. What do you have to lose?" My brother really really is an attorney too, but even he knows better than to forward these emails. As a matter of fact, this post will describe why you shouldn't forward ANY e-mails "to all of your friends", even at the threat of instant death for breaking the curse or instant millions for doing Bill Gates some unspecified favor.

Old news
First, let me say that this should be old news to anyone who has been on the internet for more than a week. It surprises me that people still don't know to go to snopes and check whether the story they are spreading is even true. Generally, the answer is no. Nevertheless, we all still have that one aunt or cousin who just now got the internet, and they will forward these things until they are given a compelling reason not to. Here is that compelling reason.

All spam is spam
So, the risk of forwarding any compelling e-mail is that you are essentially participating willingly as a human part of a very effective spam operation. As you may know, sometimes spammers create viruses which download to your machine and secretly take it over to attack other machines or send commercial e-mails on behalf of the spammer. This allows the spammer to get around certain restrictions that might be imposed by their ISP against sending bulk e-mails. Instead the e-mails are from everyone, to everyone.

Exponential growth
One reason not to forward any e-mail, no matter how compelling, is that we've all already seen it. This is a mathematical certainty when you think about it. Let's take a compelling factor, call it x. If you are compelled to x degree to forward an e-mail, then you will forward it to x people, let's say. However, those x people will presumably find it just as compelling, and each x people will forward it to x people. That's x*x people so far. Now if that goes to a third generation, it is x to the third, and even if x is just 4, the message has been forwarded to a million people in ten generations. So, we've all seen it by the time you are sending it. The problem is even worse with more compelling e-mails. There is an easy test to see if an e-mail is subject to this problem. If you are thinking of forwarding it to more than two people, it is too compelling, and we have already seen it. This applies to virus warnings, gold speculation, "secret" recipes, free money, etc.

But I didn't forward any commercial e-mail
You may think that you can filter out commercial messages yourself, and just pare your forward list to those who do not complain about it, and those who have already seen it will just ignore it. You may be able to do that, though I question whether your e-mail was just a covert advertisement for MicroSoft and AOL, because after all, these are good impressions of those companies if they are being all charitable to you, the customer. None of this matters. The real, valuable content of those e-mails is not the "compelling" message. It is the forwarding lists of validated e-mail addresses. These lists are gold to a spammer. After a number of generations of sending one of these e-mails, it will have hundreds of e-mail addresses in it. At some point, someone will forward it to one of their active online friends, who is really a spammer. Now that spammer has MY e-mail address, and I didn't even want the mail in the first place, never mind forward it. I'm just on it because you sent it to me at some point. So stop it. Thanks for your time.


Ben Michaeinzla said...

self promotion

elhaf said...

Ok, so my brother (who really really is a lawyer) sent me one of these e-mails anyway even after reading this post. You've probably seen it, it was the one about dogs and raisins. However, the point is, I hadn't seen it, and he forwarded it only to me, and it is true, so he overcame every single objection outlined in the post. Damn lawyers.