Friendly-Fire Spam

by Ken Ficara
Originally published January 2, 1998 in Bob Howe's Fetish Weather Forecast

This e-mail message contains a virus. By reading it, you stand a significant chance of catching and transmitting it.

Perhaps most FWF readers know enough to scoff at this, having received these ridiculous warnings once too many times. But as someone who answers lots of computer questions from insufficiently technical types at work, I can tell you that a whole lot of people panic when they see the famous "Good Times" warning or one of its variants.

If you've been lucky enough never to get one of these, the "Good Times" warning was a mass e-mail that began on AOL a few years ago. It warned people that an e-mail message with the subject "Good Times" was being circulated on the net, and that it contained a virus. Opening and reading the mail, you were told, would erase your hard drive, trash your computer and otherwise ruin your day.

This is, of course, impossible. There is (almost) no way that reading an e-mail can damage your computer. Downloading an attachment and opening it could certainly do damage, but reading an e-mail can't.

The "Good Times" e-mail, and its many variations, are one example of what I now think of as "friendly-fire Spam." Although forwarded by a well-meaning acquaintance rather than a marketer, it's useless, or worse than useless e-mail, which clogs up your mailbox and aggravates you.

Remember Craig Shergold, the sick boy who wants lots of get-well cards? Gotten any alerts lately about a major corporation that's implemented a policy unfriendly to gays, or maybe it was women, or the environment, so please e-mail this address to express your support, or is it condemnation?

Forget it! Craig is alive and well and neither he nor his post office want any more damned cards of any sort. Whichever corporation was the subject of the last "alert" you got like that has probably shut down the e-mail address or phone number you were asked to contact, and made a final decision on the policy, assuming that the story was even true in the first place.

You should be instantly suspicious of this mail that arrives electronically dog-eared and rumpled -- a subject line full of "Forward:" and "FWD:", a stack of mail headers and "Thought you'd like this" comments before the actual message, quote marks >>>>>> deep. The erroneous calls to action, the funny messages that have been on the net longer than you have, the Darwin Award stories that are never true.

Sometimes they're worse than annoying, as happened just this week on several mailing lists I subscribe to. Junior Wells, one of the great Chicago blues harp players, is deathly ill. Someone posted a note to the blues mailing list early this week, saying that he'd heard an interview with Junior on a German radio station, that he was up and about, and looking forward to getting back to performing. Several celebratory messages followed, until someone passed on the "news" to Wells' manager, whose infuriated response pointed out that Wells was still in a nursing home, that a tracheotomy tube in his throat would have made any sort of interview impossible, and that he's still too sick to even start chemotherapy.

Meanwhile, a well-meaning subscriber passed the "good news" on to the harmonica mailing list, saying, "I just thought it'd be of interest. I have absolutely no idea of its validity." And apparently no idea that it might get people's hopes up and cause needless pain to Wells' friends, family and fans. Someone had to pass on Wells' manager's note to the harp list, and I'm sure some people are still going around thinking that he's okay now.

So in fact, much of these e-mails do contain viruses -- the mail is itself a virus. It infects people, replicates itself, and wastes your time.

I'm trying to inoculate myself. I do forward things around sometimes, but I forward them to friends who are interested in the subject in question, I try to make sure what I'm forwarding has some basis in fact, and that the recipients have not seen it before. Checking things out is not complicated: Go to AltaVista <> and search "Craig Shergold." You'll get a raft of urban-legend pages explaining the real situation.

So I'm defending myself. I've been filtering regular old commercial Spam out of my e-mail for some time, mostly thanks to my superb ISP, Panix <>, which maintains global filter files to block Spam. Now I've added some new rules to filter out any mail that meets two or more of the following conditions:

It remains to be seen how effective these will be, and I'll be experimenting with weighting them differently depending on what gets through and what gets caught (the mail isn't trashed, just put somewhere that I can check it at my leisure). Anyone with better ideas, or interested in the details of the procmail recipes, can feel free to e-mail me (an original mail).