Desktop: E-mail fly swatting

Like you, I get a lot of junk e-mail. And, hopefully like you, I've set up filters and employed anti-spam programs to cut down the flow of useless, space-eating messages about stuff I wouldn't dream of buying.

May 17, 2006 10:19
4 minute read.
strudel email 88

strudel email 88. (photo credit: )

Like you, I get a lot of junk e-mail. And, hopefully like you, I've set up filters and employed anti-spam programs to cut down the flow of useless, space-eating and bandwidth-wasting messages about stuff I wouldn't dream of buying in a million years. Using these methods, at least some of the spam ends up in the trash bin before it even gets onto the computer. But there's another category of spam - let's call it "voluntary spam." This is junk e-mail you get after a download or signing up for a service. The bargain works like this: you get a good deal on something, and the seller gets your e-mail address so it can spam you. The arrangement works out for both parties, because you as the customer get a material benefit of some sort, and they as a business get another e-mail address they can add to the lists they show advertisers. Fair enough, and you can always set up your anti-spam filters to dump the messages. But check out this story of voluntary spam: I signed up several months ago for a service which gave me free delivery on some products (value $10), knowing I would get a weekly e-mail from the business. As it happens, the messages themselves, although technically spam, contained links to other deals this site was providing. Because of those deals, I didn't want to put the messages on my bad spam list, just in case I might miss out on something good. In practice, though, I never got around to reading those weekly messages, and they began to pile up in my e-mail box. After a few months, I got a message from the company with this title: "David - Are you missing out on a good thing?" No, sir or ma'am, I am not - or at least I didn't plan to. I opened the message and read the following: "Dear David: We've noticed that you haven't been opening our weekly emails. We don't want to impose, so we've decided to stop sending them to you." Huh? This was unbelievable! Not that they were considerate enough to stop spamming me (although that is pretty unbelievable in itself!); it was the first sentence that threw me. How, pray tell, would they know whether or not I opened their message? How could they? Through the judicious use of "Web bugs," that's how. Web bugs have been around for a long time, but there are still lots of people who haven't heard of them. Web bugs, also known as web beacons, pixel tracking and post-click tracking, are little - very little - devices that appear on Web pages that collect data on a variety of things, such as how many users from which countries or ISPs visited a site - or, information of a more, shall we say, personal nature. For example: Have you ever noticed how when you are surfing at a site located, say, in California, the banner ads on that site still appear in Hebrew and advertise Israeli goods and services? Does the webmaster think the only people visiting the site are Israeli? The answer to all these questions is - you guessed it - Web bugs. Such bugs, which usually consist of very small images (one pixel squared!), appear on many Web sites and collect information about you, the user, and send it back to Central. When they determine where your computer is located (easy to do with IP detection software), they, or their ad affiliate, flash banners they think will interest you. Ditto for the types of products you get shown. Once upon a time there was an uproar over the use of what many consider invasive advertising tactics (see, but as with so many other information era battles, the little guy has more or less lost this one. Web bugs are a feature on almost all major commercial sites today (see the "Web bug report" on Needless to say, of course, these bugs can be used for more nefarious purposed ( Web bugs work in e-mail, too. HTML e-mails, the kind with pictures, can and usually do contain these beacons, which inform their senders of all sorts of interesting things about the recipient, such as whether he or she has been following the deal by reading spam. In other words, once you open a spam message to see who sent it to you, you've lost - because the sender already knows that you've looked at the message! It's even worse, of course, if you click on those little "unsubscribe" links at the bottom of the message, because now they know their spam has reached an e-mail box that actually gets read! Disabling HTML in e-mail programs helps (, which covers many programs and Web mail sites). And if you want to avoid sites that use Web bugs altogether, check out Bugnosis, a free download from for Windows users. Bugnosis provides a special panel in Internet Explorer, which, when it detects a Web bug, beeps and zeroes in on the offending image. Then you can decide for yourself if you feel like sharing your personal stats with someone "out there." Bugnosis puts some bug-killing power back in the hands of the people; fighting Web bugs may be a losing battle, but at least you'll know who you're losing to.

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