June 21, 1997 1:15 PM PDT
Hotmail porn spam reported
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Numerous readers have complained to CNET's NEWS.COM about junk email advertising pornography sites. This spam bore addresses from Hotmail and other free email services, though it is unclear whether it had actually passed through their servers or was simply disguised with the names of their companies.
As reported yesterday, Netizens said they had received spam reading: "Come see and talk to our hot models right on your computer screen. Our models will do whatever you say and we're willing to prove it by giving you five free minutes to try us out. Click here."
Mark Mueller, of Missoula, Montana, said he had received at least 30 pornographic-related emails from Hotmail users in the past month. "For a while, I was getting two a day...I'm not a prude, but this is getting ridiculous." He added that such messages also had been sent to the mailbox of his 12-year-old son, which he deemed "completely unacceptable."
The porn spam underscores how the surge in free email services raises the potential for abuse, even though the companies have safeguards in place. All ISPs and online services are trying to cope with the same problem, but free email services are especially vulnerable because they're so accessible.
ISPs and users said the problem is not limited to Hotmail, either. They cite examples from other free email services, such as Juno, NetAddress, and Bigfoot, among others. Moreover, they say the mail does not always originate from their servers--making it difficult, if not impossible, to prevent.
"There are cases where a person spamming or sending junk email doesn't use NetAddress but sets the reply-to field in their mail software to point to a NetAddress," says a posting on that company's Web site. "We have limited control in these cases, but we will investigate the reply-to address to evaluate if this subscriber is the true sender of the spam."
One sympathetic ISP said: "What is Hotmail supposed to do if the mail never passed through its server?"
Some ISPs think they have a solution to make everybody happy: Get the free email services to add specific header information that can be added only when their servers process the mail. If the mail doesn't have the ID from their servers, it would be rejected. They hope that the services can work with email and software companies to form out a standard.
Steve Douty, Hotmail's vice president of marketing, said yesterday that he could not confirm the porn spam incidents. Company policy spells out that ads like these are forbidden, however, and the sender's account will be closed, he added.
"The member agrees not to transmit through the service any unlawful, harassing, libelous, abusive, threatening, harmful, vulgar, obscene, or otherwise objectionable material of any kind or nature," the user agreement reads. "Members will not use the service for chain letters, junk mail, spamming, or any use of distribution lists to any person who has not given specific permission to be included in such a process."
To discourage spams, Hotmail won't let members send out a single email to more than 25 users, Douty noted. In addition, the company has set up an address to handle such complaints at email@example.com, and its policy is to follow up on any complaints about offensive email within 24 hours, he said.
As a further precaution, Hotmail began attaching the IP address to all outbound Hotmail messages, which could identify people with "questionable motives," Douty explained. "Since then, we've been successful on numerous occasions to identify those who abuse our service and have worked closely with both the authorities and the associated ISP to remove them from the Internet."
Juno also has safeguards in place. "If you have received unsolicited, harassing, or obscene email from a Juno member, please forward the message, including full headers, to firstname.lastname@example.org," the service tells its members.
It also says: "You agree that you may not use the service to disseminate any email message in a broad-based mailing [that is, a single message sent through the service directly to more than 50 email addresses simultaneously] without the prior written permission of Juno."
But many recipients don't know, or even care, about such technical details; they just want the situation investigated, explained, and rectified.
Too often, Netizens complain, such corrections take too long. "For the past year I've gotten numerous spam mails," said one. "I've written to email@example.com several times and never gotten a reply."
Another said he hasn't heard back for more than a month. "I am writing to let you know that Hotmail is letting porn spammers use their site," one Netizen complained.
Added another: "This is not a one-time mailing. You can be assured that I will not consider purchasing any product that is advertised on Hotmail as long as I continue to receive unsolicited ads from porn sites from its server."
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