Tuesday 9 January 2007


When people say that the Warburton family are in bread, they naturally mean that they are leading British bakers; not that they are drawn from an unduly narrow gene pool. But the firm has recently done something so brave that it could almost be barmy: running TV adverts that put various directors’ e-mail addresses right there on the screen, and asking the public to send in their ideas. Thereby inciting the electronic equivalent of those letters that traditionally come to companies and newspapers in green ink on the back of fag and cereal packets.

I was particularly struck by this as I’d just been trying to work out how I could persuade people not to e-mail me. Over three days at Christmas, the quietest time of the year, I received 364 e-mails. Only 4% of these were genuine messages from friends or businesses. The other 96% were spam: unwanted trash.

Since I had absolutely nothing better to do, I decided to analyse these unwelcome messages to see what they were about. In first place, comprising nearly 40% of the total, were invitations to access pornography so vile that even I wouldn’t be tempted to take a look at it. A further 19% were trying to sell me Viagra and other related drugs, presumably to help me take a suitable interest in the pornography.

Ranking equal second, also on 19%, were dodgy share tips for various small American companies. These nearly all included two phrases: “major PR campaign just started” (so the senders clearly don’t know that I worked in financial PR for over 20 years, and have a very shrewd understanding of what it can do for share prices); and “this one is going to explode” (an odd choice of wording given that nearly all the tips were for energy companies).

The remaining 22% were an eclectic mix, including (in descending order of frequency) advertisements for online gambling, replica watches, dating sites, bogus degrees, reductions in overall weight, very localised increases in the size of body parts, computer software, dream jobs and anti-depressants. Three people more or less straightforwardly invited me to download a virus that would destroy my computer. And two spoof banks invited me to send them my account numbers and passcodes for security clearance.

One wonders exactly what the senders hope to achieve, since one would have to be criminally stupid to respond to any of these messages, even if so many of them didn’t include a few lines of total gibberish to underline their absolute worthlessness. But I guess that every now and then someone, somewhere must be daft enough to send off their bank account details to the Nigerian with the multi-millions he needs to find an urgent home for, or he’d have given up by now.

More importantly, how on earth does one stop it? I dealt with unwanted post and phone calls long ago through the very effective preference services (www.mpsonline.org.uk and www.tpsonline.org.uk if you haven’t yet tried them). It is also possible to opt out of receiving unaddressed junk mail from your postman, though Royal Mail claim that they would have to charge you even more for delivering genuine letters if they weren’t making money out of these unwanted mailshots. Surely it is high time someone devised an equivalent service to stop unsolicited e-mail?

I’ve begun wondering whether the whole Warburtons ploy isn’t, in fact, an elaborate bluff: make your e-mail address sufficiently accessible, and it’ll take all the fun out of tracking it down and making a nuisance of yourself. I’ll be interested to hear how it works out for them. And in the meantime, if anyone out there has any bright ideas on how to put a stop to nuisance spam, I’d be delighted to hear what they are. In fact, that would be the one sort of e-mail from strangers that I really wouldn’t mind receiving.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

No comments: