July 13, 2003
Oh Crap

I hate it more than just about anything: more than caterpillars, more than cucumbers, more than Upstairs Neighbor Guy, more than people who intercom me from ten feet away ... more than surly young men slouching around town with the crotch of their pants sagging down around their kneecaps ... more, even, than an All-Celine-Dion/All-Weekend Marathon on KYUK-FM. It raises my blood pressure ... it wastes my time ... it costs me tens of dollars and thousands of hours ... it has trashed my hard drive, not once but TWICE in the past year ... and it has pretty much sucked the fun out of the whole *Internet communication experience* for me, just lately.

What 'it' is is crapmail.

I refuse to call it spam. Aside from wanting to avoid any future legal difficulties with the nice folks at Hormel Foods Corporation, there is the whole issue of descriptive validity. 'Spam' sounds entirely too cute and too cuddly, frankly, to describe the excrement I find waiting for me every time I open my cyber mailbox these days. 'Spam' is the occasional faux Neiman Marcus Cookie recipe ... the random Circuit City advertisement after you've ordered your son's Christmas XBox online ... the cyber chain letter promising you a $50 Applebee's gift certificate if you'll forward this e-mail to 43,897,621 of your closest online pals within the next ten minutes.

Annoying, idiotic, time-consuming ... but basically harmless.

THIS stuff, on the other hand, is neither cute nor cuddly. This stuff is the crusty goo oozing from that woman's belly button ring in Berkeley last month. This stuff is the gelatinous glob of duck shidt waiting for us on our front porch every morning. This stuff is the slimy, sulphurous scum we scraped off the bottom of our vegetable drawer, after our refrigerator died in the middle of a heatwave last week.

This stuff is CRAP, in other words. Plain and simple. And for the past few months I've been drowning in it.

At the beginning of the year, by my calculations, I was averaging roughly 500 pieces of crapmail per week. By the time I went on my journaling vacation at the end of May the amount had nearly quadrupled. Granted, this total was spread between a bunch of different e-mail accounts -- a handful of AOL screen names, a Yahoo address, an old personal-ads-and-stalking-the-ex-boyfriend Hotmail account left over from my days in the Tree House -- plus my primary *FootNotes* address here at secraterri .com -- but when you take them all and pile them together into one big wet stinky maggot-covered heap, it adds up to roughly two thousand individual pieces of virtual sewage per week.

That's one helluva lot of crap.

at the height of the deluge

I'll admit: a lot of it is my own fault. For years I was very careless about how (and to whom) I gave out my online contact information. Having a semi-public online persona doesn't help ... especially when your semi-public online persona is a pathetic attention junkie who practically begs people to write to her and tell her how wonderful her semi-public online persona is. 

It wasn't so bad for the first couple of years, when *FootNotes* was still living in rented cyberspace and my total readership -- not counting my mom and my daughters and my future husband and the people who hated me but read me anyway, hoping I would start drinking again -- totalled maybe four people altogether. The inflow of crapmail was little more than a trickle in those days. A quick flush, a quick spritz of Lysol ... and *poof,* it was gone. 

But then I started getting serious about this online journaling stuff, and this online journaling stuff started getting serious about ME, and I immediately ran out and made things much, much worse by purchasing my own home in cyberspace. All of a sudden ... I was a domain! I was so in love with the sight of my groovy new e-mail address that I ran willynilly all around the Internet, dropping it everywhere: on message boards, in guestbooks, on mailing lists and webring lists and high school reunion websites. It was like painting a great big sign on my forehead that said HELLO, CRAPMAILERS! PLEASE SEND ME INFORMATION ON HOW TO SAVE 89% ON INKJET & LASER TONER CARTRIDGES, OK?! In no time at all, my e-mailbox started filling up with offers for free pay-per-view, lower mortgage rates, the world's smallest digital camera, the latest anti-wrinkle breakthroughs ("better than Botox!") ... not to mention the ubitiquitous sporncams and shmutmail and quadruple-X-rated farmgrils doing it with sheap.

The 'trickle' soon became an all-out shidtstorm.

Then there is the crapmail I have stoopidly but purposely invited into my mailbox. A few months ago, for instance, I was surfing the Internet looking for information on life insurance. I must have visited a dozen different websites in one weekend alone, attempting to figure out the difference between the various types of policies: Term, Whole Life, Universal, Variable, Antioxidant, Noncomedogenic. Mostly I stuck to the 'name companies' ... reputable insurance firms whose commercial jingles I've sung along with ("And like a good neighbor/State Farm is there!") since I was dribbling grape jelly down the front of my footy pajamas. Even so, after just a few hours the whole thing began to turn into this big nightmarish jumble of pop-up ads and industry jargon that left me even more confused than when I'd started out. Eventually I opted for the "Just e-mail me some information and be done with it" option, and I logged off without having really learned anything useful about life insurance. So what happened? Virtually overnight I began receiving fifty times the usual number of insurance-related excrement. It's as though one online insurance guy saw my request for information and immediately got on the horn, alerting every other online insurance guy within a 250,000 mile radius. (Hey! SECRA is looking for information on INSURANCE!') From that point on, every time I opened my mailbox there would be another 40-50 e-mails with message headers like "Deep Discounts on Whole Life!" ... "Let Providers Compete For Your Business!" ... "Secraterri, What Will You Do If He Dies? sjjhvlxjhv dxxRFDSFv."

Coincidence? I think not.

Most embarrassing of all, there is the crapmail I accidentally invited into my mailbox. Not long ago I visited one of those 'online pharmacy' sites: the kind of website that purports to sell you Phentermine or Soma or Adipex (or a bazillion other medications that I've never even heard of), over the counter, without all the fuss and bother and inconvenience of having to produce an actual legal prescription. I wasn't shopping. Honest. I was doing research for a *FootNotes* entry that never saw the light of day ... all about how it's probably a good thing that I didn't have access to these types of websites, back in my desperate and gullible I'm just going to do half of it tonight and I'll save the rest of it for tomorrow I swear to god days. And I only stayed on the website for a millisecond -- I realized instantly that this was a Very Bad Place: I didn't even allow the animated .gifs to finish loading before I exited in a panic -- but by then it was too late. By then they'd already locked onto my computer with their little crapmailer laser beams and planted all of their evil tracking devices on my hard drive. Within hours, I was shovelling "online pharmacy" crapmail from my *In* Box with an industrial-strength bulldozer. To this day, 75% of the crapmail I receive is the pseudo-pharmaceutical variety of crap.

I'll admit that there are moments when I've actually found some of this stuff amusing. The increasingly inventive ways they try to trick me into opening their crap ("Are you mad at me?") ... the mangled grammar ("What have you got too loose?") ... not to mention the complete disconnect between target audience (*me*) and product (cigarettes, golf tees, phone sex, baldness remedies). You've got to admit: there is a certain goofball irony to being inundated with ads for dating services and online singles clubs when you're the most nauseatingly-happily-married woman on the planet ... Wonder Bras and bust-enhancement cremes when you're a natural-born 38DD ... pen1s enlargers and generic "Viagera" when you're married to a guy who ...

Well. You get the idea.

By the end of May, however, none of it was seeming all that funny any more. When it takes thirty minutes just to download your overnight mail in the morning and you've only got twenty minutes to spend on the computer ... when you have to comb through 1,999 e-mails about septic tanks and mortgage refinancing just to find the one viable "Hi I liked your last entry" message from a nice new reader ... when reading your e-mail causes you actual, verifiable PAIN, so much so that you start avoiding your mailbox altogether ... that's when I knew I had a problem.

And that's when I knew I was going to have to change my online habits.

This was actually one of the projects I assigned myself during my journaling hiatus last month, along with organizing my underwear drawer, spending time with my family, updating my archives, finishing off the last of the Easter candy. I figured that as long as I was taking a break from writing all of these insightful, life-affirming, award-winning *FootNotes* entries every day -- [ahem] -- I could put some of that spare online time to good use and work on solving the mystery of the crapmail. 

I felt like Nancy Drew with a keyboard and a plunger. 

The first step, obviously, was to do some research. If I could figure out how the crapmailers operated -- if I could understand the mind of my enemy -- I might have a better chance of thwarting them before they could defecate into *my* mailbox. Luckily, there is no shortage of information available out there. Just type the words "spam" and "e-mail" and "stop sending your smelly revolting crap to me right now or I will kill you totally dead I mean it" into any web browser, and you're instantly looking at a veritable Congressional Library of opinion and discussion and information on the topic. I found the Death To Spam website especially helpful.

The second thing I did was sort of a no-brainer: I went around and killed off all those extraneous screen names and e-mail accounts I had floating around the cyber universe. I kept the SecraTerri(at)aol account. That's where I met my husband, and I find that even after all these years I'm still emotionally attached (to the AOL account and to the husband).  But for the time being I've slapped a big clunky chastity belt on the e-mail controls. No e-mail going out. No e-mail coming in. I figure that anybody who needs to get in touch with SecraTerri(at)AOL after all this time (Hellooooooooooo, Kevin Lanning!) can probably figure out where to find me. Then I consolidated all of my 'utility' e-mail accounts -- the notify list memberships, the bill-pay announcements, the department store advertisements I'm actually interested in receiving -- into one all-purpose Yahoo e-mail account. Yahoo has a built-in crap-filtering system ... albeit a sort of weak, watery, ineffective crap-filtering system that still allows big smelly chunks of raw sewage to ooze into my *In* box. (This weekend, for instance, Yahoo persists in blocking e-mail from my bank, but sees nothing wrong with plunking ads for J.Lo's Pink Engagement Ring into my priority mailbox.) But it's a filtering system, and as such it's better than nothing, and I'll hang onto it until something more effective comes along.

The third step was to purchase and install a legitimate crap-filtering software program to handle my important personal mail, including/especially the mail I receive here at the *FootNotes* factory. I'd sort of resisted doing this ... not only because I'm cheap and I'm broke and I didn't want to spend the money, but also because I was convinced that *I* could continue to do a perfectly adequate job of creating filters for my e-mail program, all by myself. How hard can it be to block all incoming mail with the word "penis" in the subject title, for example? What I hadn't counted on were those busy little crapmailers, working feverishly around the clock to come up with ingenious new ways to get past the censors. So even though 'penis' was blocked, that didn't stop 'Pen1s,' 'p3nis,' 'penls' or 'peeniss' from inching their flaccid wormy way into my *In* box when I wasn't looking. Eventually I just said 'I give up' ... and I went ahead and sprang for the software. It runs quietly in the background now, constantly updating itself with the latest filters, hot off the Internet. It spends the rest of its time scooping up all of my incoming mail, sorting through it, date-stamping it, tossing out the crap and saving the legitimate stuff for me to read at my leisure. (Not unlike what *I* do for my boss every day.)  It catches maybe 80% of the crapmail, which is a significant improvement over my clumsy do-it-yourself filtering system. It seems to be especially good at snagging the virus carriers: every morning when I wake up, there are at least three or four of the little fudkers caught in the lintscreen, wriggling and shrieking in terror. The pleasure I derive from flushing them permanently is worth the price of registration alone. 

The only thing I don't like about the program is that I still have to give at least a cursory glance to the crap mail that it does quarantine, just to make sure that there aren't any legitimate messages inadvertently sent to the kill pile. I would prefer not to have to look at it at all -- I would prefer to pretend that it doesn't even exist, like birthdays, or like post-1983 Michael Jackson -- but there doesn't seem to be any way around it, mainly because lots of legitimate messages do get sent to the kill pile, especially messages from new readers who haven't been added to my 'Friends' list yet. If I don't retrieve them after a fixed amount of time, they're deleted for good. (Which makes me wonder how many legitimate messages may have slipped through the cracks and gone forever unanswered, in recent weeks ... or how many nice new readers are sitting out there in the whereversphere right now, feeling ignored, thinking Why did I even bother writing to the snooty unresponsive b**ch? I'll probably never know for sure.)

The fourth step -- and this was the most emotionally-wrenching step of the entire *Let's Clean Up The Crap* campaign, I'm chagrined to admit -- was to deliberately deface my groovy e-mail address. It's called 'munging' (for Mash Until No Good), and it means altering your address in a way that human beings can easily work around, but automated address harvesters can't. There are a bazillion different ways to mung an e-mail address, most of which require a level of technical expertise I do not possess. (*I* possess the technical expertise of a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup, basically.)  So I went for the low-tech solution, and simply inserted the words 'NOCRAP' into the middle of my address. Anybody who wants to write to me must first manually remove the 'NOCRAP' from the address ... otherwise it will bounce back to them as undeliverable. Which is pretty much the point. An automated address harvester will come along and scoop up the munged address, hoping to add it to an ever-growing list of viable e-mail targets (which the crapmailer will then turn right around and sell to other crapmailers: that's the real industry at work here). But because secraterri@NOCRAPsecraterri.com isn't a legitimate e-mail address, it will end up bouncing back to the crapmailer, and all of those pen1s enlargers and home loan offers that were earmarked for me will instead float helplessly in cyberspace for all eternity. 

Unfortuntely, munging my e-mail address won't do anything about the 43,897,621 crapmailers who already have my valid e-mail address. That particular horse is out of the barn and down the freeway and halfway to Longacres by now. But it might stem the flow of future crappage, at least in theory, and I figure it's worth a shot ... even if it does feel a little bit like putting a clown nose and fright wig on my baby.

So how is all of this precaution and paranoia working out, you ask?

It's hard to tell. It's sort of like those first couple of weeks after you've started a new diet: you could swear that you're losing weight -- you could swear that your face looks a little thinner, that your clothes feel a little less snug, that your skin feels a little looser -- even if the bathroom scale still hasn't moved appreciably in either direction. The volume of crapmail does seem to be on the decline. This weekend, for instance, I've received 221 separate pieces of crapmail in my main *In* box and another 132 in the Yahoo mailbox, as opposed to the 800-1,000 per weekend I was receiving at the height of the deluge. But then again I don't seem to be getting as much *real* mail, either. As soon as I made the changes, I posted a brief disclaimer on the *FootNotes* front page, telling everybody exactly what I was doing and why. I explained that this was nothing personal -- it had nothing to do with wanting or not wanting to hear from readers (or from Cranky Denver Lady, or from former college Geography professors who find their names in the archives while ego-surfing) -- and that I hoped that people would still write to me in spite of the inconvenience.

I'm realizing now that it might take a little for some of the changes to feel like business as usual.

And that's OK. I understand that this is going to be an ongoing process, and that there will always be things I need to do and learn and tweak and fix. Right now, for instance, I'm trying to decide whether or not I need a personal firewall. And we've just finished installing one of those programs that searches the hard drive, looking for spying/advertising 'bots,' and then rips them out by the tentacles. But overall I'm pleased with the steps I've taken so far, not because I believe that anything I do is going to completely eradicate crapmail from my mailbox -- it's a fact of my Internet life at the moment, along with 45-minute downloads, creaky dial-up connections and having to share a computer with a fellow online addict -- but because it makes me feel like I'm doing something about a situation that was making me miserable. 

The way I see it, it's a lot like the Upstairs Neighbor Guy problem, this past week: I can either sit here and take the abuse, day after day, week after week, until I'm sick and angry and disgusted and tired and every last *Tolerance Molecule* in my body is ground down to a little pointy stub ... or I can get off my butt and at least attempt to do something about it.

Now if only I could do something about cucumbers and baggy pants.

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