John Levin, Author of Fighting Spam for Dummies

By Shiloh Pettyjohn in Email Studies, History, Questions Answered, Spam Messages on

John R. Levin, author of The Internet for Dummies and Fighting Spam for Dummies, was kind enough to answer some of my questions for my blog. You can find out more about him at his website http://www.johnlevine.com/.

1. What do you see as the worst ramification of spam?

It makes people lose confidence in e-mail, which is one of the most important advances in communication in the past 40 years.

2. Will we be seeing an increase or decrease in spam in the next few years?
2b. Why?

The amount sent will increase, the amount that ends up in people’s mailboxes will be about the same. The spammers don’t seem to be advancing any faster than the filters.

3. Where do you think spam is heading?

I fear it’s still on track to destroy e-mail. At this point spam is about 95% of all mail, which means there’s 20 spams for every real message. That’s an enormous burden on the people and systems that handle e-mail. Also, although a decade ago spam was an annoyance primarily caused by small scale amateurs, these days it’s entwined in major criminal enterprises that rake in millions of dollars a year from the suckers who respond to spam.

4. Does the CAN-SPAM act actually do anything to reduce spam?

No, of course not, since it makes most kinds of spam legal. (Think of it as short for “You CAN SPAM if you follow these simple rules.”) There are quite effective anti-spam laws in Australia and New Zealand, moderately effective ones in the EU, and a promising one working its way through the Canadian parliament. But not here. CAN SPAM is in practice only useful against fraudulent spam, which would be illegal for other reasons anyway.

5. What do you think it will take to stop spam?

A will to stop it. The reason we have all this spam is that at way too many levels it’s easier to duck the issue than to face it. For example, most spam these days is sent through “zombies”, Microsoft Windows computers that are remotely controlled via a virus or worm. Do we hold Microsoft responsible for shipping defective software that is so easy to compromise? Nope. Do ISPs quarantine infected customer PCs that are sending spam? A few do, most don’t. You get the idea.

6. What type of spam filtering is most effective?

Spammers evolve to evade filters, so you need a filtering system that uses many techniques and is frequently updated to adjust to the latest tricks. Large ISPs like AOL and Yahoo tend to do a good job of filtering, as do some of the dedicated filtering companies.

7. Tell me about yourself and your involvement in email spam.

My background is quite technical, with a PhD in computer science. In 1993 I wrote “Internet for Dummies” which turned into a surprise smash publishing hit, and since then other books. In each book I’ve put an address for readers to write to, which means that I’ve gotten a lot of mail and, in the past decade, an increasing torrent of spam. (You think you get a lot of spam, imagine what it’s like for someone who’s had the same e-mail address for 15 years.) So I started figuring out what to do about the spam, and seem to have evolved into a Famous Expert.

8. Any other thoughts you would like to share?

Spam is a really interesting social phenomenon, from the crooks to send it to the suckers who fall for it to the ragtag bunch of people who try to deal with it. Some of the anti-spam people I know are among my closest friends, others seem to be using it to work out personal issues that might better be addressed via something like primal scream therapy.

Oh, and check out “Mobile Internet for Dummies”, coming to a bookstore near you this month. It doesn’t say too much about spam since there isn’t much mobile phone spam. Yet.