Spam: Message in a Can

One morning last fall, I was checking my email. Not just any morning – it was the morning after the election of Barack Obama as president of the United States. There, in my inbox, a timely message: “Support Obama, buying from us.”

Exactly how my forthcoming purchase would benefit the new president would remain a mystery, since I failed to follow up on that exciting opportunity. But it did prove once again that the spam universe is a fast-evolving environment. It also proved the power of the Obama brand: how many politicians are so universally admired as to inspire spam appeals? Imagine a piece of spam invoking Gordon Campbell or Carol James – it wouldn’t likely have the word “support” in the subject line.

Spammers know better than to try that, although they try everything else. There are few strategies not explored by spam appeals. In fact, there are probably very few word combinations not featured in spam subject lines. Infuriating as the avalanche of spam can be, there are moments when one must stand in admiration of their dark art.

A personal favourite subject line: “Private investigation on your wife.” That one certainly brought me up short. Unlike a lot of men, I was quite pleased about the prospect suggested by the letter and intrigued about the results of the investigation. As I am unmarried and without obvious candidates at the moment, I was curious about whom she might be. And how they found her, which is more than I’ve been able to manage.

At least spam generally fails to incorporate truly local angles. Some terrible day in the future, its level of sophistication may increase to the point where a spam email sent to Vancouver could reference the current state of the Canucks; perhaps a piece bound for Chilliwack will reference the Chiefs. As it now stands, spammers occasionally achieve similar results through sheer volume and serendipity. I can’t be the only one who has received spookily appropriate pieces of spam, generated at random.

A year or two back, I was making semi-regular appearances on a locally produced TV program called The Standard, taped in Langley. I would get emails from the producer alerting me to upcoming shows. Sure enough, one day I received an email with the subject, “The standard.” The lack of capitalization, plus the weird sender’s name, led me to understand that this was not a real gig. But at moments like that, the satisfaction of hitting the delete button battles with genuine concern about whether you should check, just to be safe. Which is all the spammers want.

Spam emails are like drugs, in one way at least: the war against them can be as damaging as the original problem. My ISP offers a spam filter that, remarkably, has yet to intercept a single piece of mail, ever. I wish I could say the same about anti-spam programs employed by others. Recently, I have been unable to send emails to my own brother, since his company’s online security systems are apparently convinced that any messages from me must concern debt consolidation or penis extension creams. It’s not as though I am referring to him by a childhood nickname of Add Six Inches, either. Yet all my emails to him go straight to the spam folder. I can’t imagine what I should do to make myself seem more legit.

Perhaps it’s time to stop trying to beat them. If I’m going to be marked as spam anyway, I might as well make a few bucks. There’s a real niche for the small spammer whose subject lines will touch on local concerns. “Hot nymphos want you” is all very well, as spam subjects go. But how about “Hot nymphos want you at the Cherry Lane Mall in Penticton”? That should create a traffic jam around the water fountain. My brother wouldn’t respond – he’s in California. But he’s not reading my emails anyway.