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Spam's Assault Going Beyond Annoying E-Mail

Unwelcome e-ads now clog instant messaging systems, Internet logs and cellphones.

May 31, 2004|Chris Gaither | Times Staff Writer

Within weeks of Ed Harwood's fatal motorcycle crash, the memorial website for the charismatic copywriter from England who called himself "Fatso" was filled with hundreds of remembrances.

Wayne from La Manga, Spain, reminisced about Harwood belting out "I Will Survive" like a pub singer. Jeanie from London described him as "a big bear of a man with a rib-crushing hug and bone-rattling laugh." His wife, Penny, chronicled spreading his ashes on the Caribbean beach where they had married and sending white balloons into the sunset.

And automated "spambots" littered the memorial page with as many as 15 ads a day for cellphone ring tones and online casinos, to the horror of his family and friends.

Despite legislative efforts from Sacramento to Washington, spam is expanding into such diverse areas as Internet bulletin boards, instant messaging programs, Web logs and cellphones. It's not just for computer in-boxes anymore.

And as more people access e-mail on mobile devices, spam is following them on the road, where it feels more intrusive and harder to cope with.

It's impossible to catalog the size of the market for products sold through spam, but the best guess is that it's in the billions of dollars.

"It's like water flowing down a hill -- you try to block it, and it just flows elsewhere," said Doug Peckover, co-founder of Privacy Inc., an anti-spam software company in Dallas.

The Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Assn. is compiling a directory of about 75% of the 163 million mobile phones in the United States. Critics say the database will make it easier for marketers to bombard phones with text messages as they do in Asia and Europe, where full-featured handsets are more widespread and text messaging is more common.

About half of all European mobile phone users have received text message ads, according to Cambridge, Mass.-based research firm Forrester Research. Alison Wenham is one of them. Cellphone spam keeps her up at night.

The chief executive of the Assn. of Independent Music in Britain often gets text messages hawking "free holidays, vouchers and all sorts of other goodies" if she'll only call the phone number provided.

The messages set her phone ringing at 4 a.m., rousing her from slumber in fear that it's her children in trouble.

"You get up because you think it's urgent," Wenham said.

California law prohibits sending unsolicited commercial text messages to cellphones. But most of the junk e-mail sent across the Internet is from spammers who ignore the rules, so laws may not do much good. And major advertisers are trying to work within the laws to send more text messages.

Using AT&T Wireless, viewers of the Fox TV show "American Idol" this season sent 13.5 million text messages to vote for their favorite singers or enter sweepstakes related to the series.

The mobile carrier, based in Redmond, Wash., began sending them invitations for more "American Idol" sweepstakes, text-messaging rate plans and games related to the show.

AT&T Wireless spokesman Jeremy Pemble said the company was sensitive to concerns about wireless spam. It limits messages to things customers have expressed interest in and allows removal from text-message marketing lists. It doesn't charge for incoming messages or for "unsubscribe" requests.

"They've basically raised their hand and said, 'I'm interested in "American Idol" content,' " he said. "It's a very effective marketing tool. What it is not is an open invitation for other companies or ourselves to blast random text messages to our customer base."

With federal laws clamping down on telemarketing and e-mail ads, marketers are looking for new ways to pitch their products, including such old-school methods as stopping people in shopping malls.

"The direct-marketing industry is throwing the spaghetti up against the wall and seeing what sticks," said Tim Searcy, executive director of the American Teleservices Assn., a trade group in Indianapolis that has fought the federal government's popular "do-not-call" list.

E-mail was seen as the next great hope for marketers, but spamming hucksters have overrun it. More than 60% of e-mail traffic is believed to be spam.

That's trouble for people with mobile devices like the BlackBerry e-mail pager that act as portable extensions of the PC in-box.

The trunk of Kevin Jacques' BMW helped give him some peace from the spammers. The venture capitalist with Sevin Rosen Funds in Dallas had his BlackBerry set to vibrate every time a message arrived.

But it would buzz all night as junk e-mail poured in. His wife made him keep the device in his car at night and on weekends until anti-spam software dramatically reduced the flow.

If only Todd Dagres had as much luck with spam filters. A venture capitalist with Battery Ventures who splits his time between Massachusetts and Hollywood, Dagres has used a BlackBerry for about five years.

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