Web based email users and providers can start thinking in a new way

By Robert Ashworth

Do they keep trying to sell you ugly aluminum siding for your brick house?

How can one flee from the constant onslaught of junk mail?  

Here's an old idea I came up with, tho there are much better systems in the market today.  

One answer is to keep changing your email address.  As soon as your mailbox starts getting onto spam lists, get a new "pristine" one.

You ask, "but what about that fellow, I met at a cocktail party over a year ago?"  "He finally got around to contacting me after he found my card again."  "It had slipped down behind his book case."  "He would not be able to reach my new address and I still want to hear from him."

Answer:  Put a web address, rather than an email address, on your business cards.  Then your long lost friend can go to the web site and look up your current address.

People should start thinking in new ways.  "Email addresses are transient."  "Web addresses are permanent." 

For those who don't have their own web sites, mail services, such as Yahoo or Hotmail could redesign their systems around this concept.  Instead of issuing an email address the account could be for a tiny web space. 

For instance

www.hotmail.com/user/

Instead of

user@hotmail.com

Long lost friends, and new contacts alike, could visit the web space to find your current email address. 

Each person, who has an account with this service, could access a control panel, under their password.  This could be used to change the email address.  The addresses could contain numbers, for instance: robertonroad1, robertonroad2 and so forth. 

Would spammers start "spidering" these sites and collect the pristine addresses? 

Eventually they would try, but service providers could come up with robots.txt files, and other means, to block machine access to the web sites.  If a machine is querying thousands of these sites, it could be blocked, but a person looking up one or two sites at a time could be let through.  Some web sites have email addresses depicted as graphic files, rather than text, so it is less easy for a machine to interpret.

This idea would require some new programming, on the part of email providers.  It would also require a new way of thinking about mail, on the part of users. 

Think, "here is my web address," rather than "here is my email address."

Users of AOL, and other services that offer multiple screen names, can use this technique now.  Just start using a new screen name when an old one fills up with junk mail.  If a screen name offers you space for a small web site, you can set up a permanent page that old friends can contact to find your most recent email address. 

For those who have large web sites, such as businesses or individuals on line, this technique works well.  An on line business wants to hear from new people all the time.  Restricting email to "just members of your address book" (like spam filters often do when they are at the highest setting) turns away new business.  On the other hand, putting an email address on the site  is a "sitting duck" for spam spiders.  My solution solves this problem.  I change the address on my web page when it starts getting more than 1 spam per day.  This only needs to be done about twice a year. 

The address on my web page will automatically forward mail to a more permanent "behind the scenes" address that I use for correspondence.  This more permanent address doesn't need to be changed as often because it is not on any web site. 

Changing email addresses and fixed web addresses can keep one ahead of those "aluminum siding offers."

See January 18 2003 article in Seattle Times archives about this proposal.

Excerpt from Seattle Times column by Charles Bermant:

"The first clue that Robert Ashworth thinks differently comes when he is asked how he got the idea for his new spam-fighting scheme. 

"I have a job as a custodian," he said. "And I think about things as I mop the floor." 

The first impulse is to get out while there is still time, were it not the fact that Ashworth's idea seems pretty sound:" 

Aluminum  siding for  your brick
place.


Behind the facade of YMCA building in Bellingham where I worked in the early 1990s washing windows.  Building was "modernized" back in the 1960s with this screen like siding.  Siding was removed in 1993 to bring the older brick facade back into view.

Comment from a reader

Hi Robert,

I just wanted to let you know that robots.txt files won't stop a spider. A robot.txt file presents information to cooperative spiders that they then parse and respect. It doesn't take a competent programmer even a full day to write a spider. I've written many custom spiders in the past - none of them even looked for a robots.txt file let alone respected a TOS or privacy policy. There are tricks you can use on the web server but i won't go into that (spider traps, ring traps, .htaccess, munging email addresses with javascript, ...)

I used to work for "spammers" several years ago, I thought that email could destroy direct mail and save a mountain side of paper. I was wrong and foolish - but I found out what spammers are like.

Here is my spam trick:

I have two emails, one is my permanent address at yahoo, the other is at hotmail. Whenever I sign up for a web page or whatever and they insist on an email (to confirm) I give them the hotmail address and then check it just to "click on the link to confirm"

The yahoo account averages 10 spams a month 8 of which hit bulk, I get about 5 mails I want each month that get dumped in bulk but i set filters as I go. I've had this account for over 4 years.
My hotmail account (which I have had for nearly 7 years gets 300/week no kidding. I check it once a month and erase everything so the account stays active.

I came up with this one day wondering how i could send all my spam to /dev/null (a virtual blackhole, I use Unix ;) then i went - ahhh....

--Brig


Robert Ashworth