Articles / Spam: Beyond Email

Spam: Beyond Email

Spam in the inbox is bad enough. Spam that announces itself with a cheery little tune and steals the focus from your application is much closer to intolerable. Andrew Macks (one of freshmeat's Australian Submission Bin Warriors) offers his guidelines for ICQ users who want to avoid spamming others, and we ask what can be done about this new and more intrusive type of spam.

One of the advantages of email over physical mail, that it's trivial to send the same message to many recipients at once, has led to the daily struggle against spam. As other means of mass communication become popular, spam becomes a part of them as well.

Instant Messaging, whether it be through ICQ, AIM, Jabber, etc., is becoming an increasingly popular way to stay in touch. As it becomes more popular for legitimate use, it will become a more popular vehicle for unsolicited commercial messages as well. Worst of all, IM spam is even more intrusive than email spam. email spam waits in your inbox to annoy you; IM spam leaps out at you, popping up and covering the work you were doing.

As today's editorial, we present a FAQ Andrew Macks wrote when he grew tired of it all and needed to rant in hopes of educating people about the proper use of ICQ's mass forwarding features. Education has been a serious problem since AOL first turned its masses loose on the Internet with no preparation regarding the traditions and etiquette that everyone should know. Any attempt to raise the level of consciousness is good, but is it enough?

What's the best way to deal with the problem? One welcome feature of many IM clients is that they make it easy to add people to a blocklist (a feature not provided by all email clients, and not everyone has access to procmail) and to limit incoming messages to those that come from people on your contacts list. Is it acceptable to just reject messages from people you don't know? That could block communication from strangers who have a legitimate reason to contact you. And how do you deal with the people you need to keep on your contact list who refuse to understand the difference between reasonable forwards and intrusive spam? Would it be enough to have messages from different users treated differently? (A message from your wife pops up as usual, while a message from a bowling buddy makes a less intrusive sound and is logged instead, so it can be read now or later, depending on what else you're doing.)

Is education a battle that can be won? Will the people that need to read a rant like this ever read it? If they read it, will they take it to heart? My experience with email makes me think that there are many people who won't. I have several friends whose mail I don't want to redirect to /dev/null, but they simply will not accept that they don't need to send me the same jokes, recipes, petitions, and Ann Landers columns that ten other people have already sent me.

If education isn't possible, are there technological solutions to the problem? How else could it be solved?

-- Editor

ICQ Message/URL Forwarding -- What should I be using it for?

What is ICQ?

ICQ (I-Seek-You) is a chat program and protocol for keeping track of when your friends, family, and workmates are online, and which allows you to send them short messages, participate in chats (live text conversations), distribute files to them, and send URLs of Web sites you enjoy visiting. There are many new features such as Greeting Cards and Voice Messages being added all the time.

What is Message/URL forwarding?

Message/URL forwarding is a feature of ICQ which allows you to send a message or URL that somebody sent you to another person(s) on your list without retyping the message or URL.

What is this document about?

This document is an attempt to teach ICQ users to be responsible for their own actions, and describes alternate methods for doing various things as opposed to creating forwarded messages. It also tries to explain when using or not using the forward feature is responsible.

Using Message/URL forwarding responsibly.

What should I be forwarding?

The forward feature is for forwarding messages that you find of personal interest. This means that if you receive a message or URL, visit the URL, and find it amusing, interesting, disgusting, or whatever, you want your friends to know about it. For example, if I received this message:

Hey!  I just found this really cool site for checking out all the
latest computer news.

, I would then go to the site and think it was pretty cool, and forward it to my other computer-knowledgeable friends.

Another example:

Andrew, could you please tell your family that our cat, Maggie, has
passed away. :(  She lived a long life of 15 years, so I guess we should
be happy with that.

I might choose to use ICQ to forward this message to my sisters and parents, but nobody else, since there'd be no point.

What should I avoid forwarding?

Basically *ANYTHING* that says "FORWARD TO EVERYBODY ON YOUR LIST". Some very notable points..
  • You will not get deleted for not forwarding the message.
  • You will not get a virus for not forwarding the message.
  • You will not get good luck, bad luck, be gay, be straight, etc. because you did/did not forward the message.
  • ICQ will not start charging you because you did not forward the message.
  • Person XYZ sending virii around doesn't mean a lot to you or your friends.
  • Nothing will be saved because you forwarded a message to everybody on your list.

Also not to be forwarded are URLs which are not URLs. If you have something important to say which does not include a URL, send it as a message. If it has nonsense in the URL field, it is bogus, spam, and irrelevant, and should be ignored. Feel free to then refer the person to this page to explain to them why what they are doing is so absurd.

How is unnecessary forwarding costing me money?

All traffic that passes through an Internet backbone (this is the insides of the Internet layout) costs money, even to you. Your ISP has worked out how much to charge you most likely by using one of the following methods:

  • An average of how much traffic every user on your ISP uses has been calculated and the ISP charges a set amount per month which is just above the average. Obviously, the more unnecessary traffic you generate, the higher this average will be, and over the long-term, the more Internet access will cost you. This is the most common way "Unlimited" ISPs work out their accounting.
  • A certain amount of free traffic (in megabytes) may be awarded your account, and then a set amount from 10-30c/Mb afterwards may be in effect. It's true that ICQ messages generate an extremely low amount of traffic. A single message is about 200 bytes, which is 0.0002Mb, approximately, but when you take into account the number of messages that are forwarded each month by just one user... Say 40 users are on your list, you get 20-40 messages, and you forward them to everybody. That's already 1600 messages at around 200 bytes each, 320,000 bytes or 320Kb, which is 0.32Mb. Not such a small number after all! And that's just for one user! Just imagine how that affects the average listed in the previous method.

Past Meaningless Forwards

User #2159867 is sending a virus!!

A lot of people send messages like this not because the person is sending a virus, but rather because he was rude, or annoyed them in whatever way. If somebody is sending a virus, there are better actions you can do rather than creating a pointless forwarded message which people will just mindlessly forward and ultimately ignore. My page on "How to avoid getting a virus on ICQ" is coming soon, as well as my "Problem ICQ users" page, where you can report ICQ users who are sending virii, and I will follow it up with their ISP.

BTW, I have used my UIN (2159867) in the subject as an example. I am not sending virii. :)

Everybody come online at 7:30PM Wednesday!!

This one I'll never understand. :) I'll start by saying that there are about 2 dozen time zones in the world, and maybe you can work out how foolish this is. Maybe it should be a policy that everybody just assumes they have to be online at 7:30PM Wednesday, because I have been getting these messages almost every week for the last 2 years. So yes, this is very pointless. If you feel you want to talk to some friends, arrange a time with them, and don't send it in a URL, send it in a message!

Don't download version blah of ICQ, it has a virus!

This message usually reads "Don't download version 3 of ICQ", and is sent as a URL, therefore meaningless already. There is also no version 3. After version 2.xx of ICQ, Mirabilis started using 98, 99a, 99b, and 2000a as version numbers. Also, if you are concerned about virii, install AVP or an another virus scanner, and only download software from their official sites. If you were to look for a new version of ICQ, you'd do best to try, followed by

Forward it to everyone, we need to save Napster!

This forward is about an online petition to save Napster. Although this is a noble cause, this is a very bad way to get support for a campaign. It should also be noted that online petitions mean absolutely nothing in the real world where Napster was sued. If you are really concerned, you should write to your local politician responsible for IT and/or musical arts, and voice your concern. That hand-written letter will mean more legally than the entire online petition.

You've been whacked by a pillow/banana/beachball/snowball/etc..

I am much less strict about these kinds of things because they are all meant in fun, but PLEEEEEASE don't send them as URLs. Send them as messages! And don't request so blatantly that people forward them ("Forward this to all on your list...").


Well, let's see how many problems we can find with this one. Firstly, it's in all caps, it's in a URL, and it's bogus! Woohoo! In any case, I can assure you that I have not forwarded this message before midnight, and am very much still on ICQ. I don't know if there's any hope for the people who forward things like this.

A little girl dying of cancer gets xxc for everyone you forward this message to.

This is perhaps the most tasteless forwarded message I have ever ever seen. The person who wrote this has no soul and will surely burn and rot in the deepest regions of hell. Nobody makes money from your forwarded ICQ messages; as we've already covered, it actually costs a lot of people money. There is no point to this message, and I am almost sick every time I see it.

Microsoft wants to charge $95 to use ICQ.

I'm sure they do, but fortunately for us:

  • Microsoft does not own ICQ.
  • Microsoft does not own the Internet.

I, personally, do not use Microsoft products on my computer while I'm using ICQ, so since I have absolutely no affiliation with them, and they have absolutely no affiliation with ICQ, then you tell me how they are going to implement this? This is no better than saying "Holden is going to charge you every time you use a train."

Only xx hours left until ..

That's funny; I could've sworn these messages had been going around for at least 18 months. And that pretty much includes all the Only xx hours left messages. :)

Confusing Issues

But I did get deleted!

It should be noted that, at times, especially when forwarding messages, you may have difficulty staying connected to ICQ, and may not even be able to get back online for a long time. This is not because you were deleted, but simply because the ICQ servers have builtin protection against spam which kicks you offline if you try to send too many offline messages within a short period of time. This is to prevent spam bots from easily sending spam (like "Visit this XXX Adult site") to everybody on ICQ at the same time. There is also another bit of protection on the ICQ server which stops you from logging in more than a set number of times in a short period of time. This all means that if you forward a message to everybody on a big list, you are likely to get kicked offline, and, if you continue, you may not be able to log back on for a long period of time. Every time you try, it will take longer to get back on. This is not because you didn't forward a message (as obviously you were trying to ANYWAY), so never ever assume that your account has been deleted because of the above situation. You will be able to log back in the following day at the latest (assuming you don't constantly try to reconnect for the whole 24 hours).


Basically, the whole point of this document is that you are responsible for your OWN actions, and you have your own brain to think with, so use it! Don't be a slave to other people's (especially stranger's!) orders or directions. It should also be noted that by continuing to forward messages, you are probably breaking the Terms and Conditions of your Internet account, which expressly prohibit chain letters, so unless you want to find yourself without an Internet account (sooner or later), I suggest you think before clicking forward.

Andrew Macks (a.k.a. Andypoo) is an 18 year old guy from Sydney, Australia who works for freshmeat. *grins* He organizes the ICQ Meet (a picnic gathering for ICQ users). You can spam him at ICQ UIN 2159867.

Andypoo keeps an updated copy of the above at, which he updates from time to time.

T-Shirts and Fame!

We're eager to find people interested in writing editorials on software-related topics. We're flexible on length, style, and topic, so long as you know what you're talking about and back up your opinions with facts. Anyone who writes an editorial gets a freshmeat t-shirt from ThinkGeek in addition to 15 minutes of fame. If you think you'd like to try your hand at it, let know what you'd like to write about.

Recent comments

17 Dec 2000 06:16 Avatar sigh

Hrrm, now, I'm not sure how or why noone would have done this long ago, but in terms of ICQ, to prevent spam:

1) Turn ON/enable 'Do not accept WWPager Messages'

2) Turn ON/enable 'Do not accept EmailExpress messages'

3) Turn ON/enable 'My authorization is required before users can add me to their contact lists'

4) Turn ON/enable 'Accept messages only from users on my Contact List'

5) Turn ON/enable 'Do not accept Multi-Recipient Messages from All Users'

With these settings, the only spam I get is forwards from users on my contact list that sent it to me only. I can deal with those. The above settings work for me, you'll notice when you go into ICQ's settings to change them that there are options for less restrictive/anal settings. Understand that the easier you make it for people to send you messages, the easier it is for spam to come through. Just a word of warning.

- b00tch

17 Dec 2000 00:06 Avatar andypoo

Lord of the Flies - Licq is developing a lot of features which could eventually be used in a way similar to a procmail filter. The autoreply filter could probably be modified to simply act like procmail in a way where messages could be deleted without showing up on the users list, or generating a reply.

Hadess - You are right, this document was meant for the offenders of forwarding messages and was an attempt to enlighten them.

Also, regarding the 'Forward this mesage, we must stop these forwarded messages', adding that one soon :)


16 Dec 2000 17:49 Avatar ericfenderson

This is why I use AIM
Hmm, it seems AOL has actually produced a better product for once. I originally started using AIM because my girlffriend was on AOL, and that's how I could talk to her online. When my friends started pressuring me into joining ICQ, I looked into it. I decided to stay ICQ-free for one simple securtiy reason:
AOL proxies all AIM traffic, while ICQ uses direct IP connections. Figured I might as well discourage the script kiddies. I'd like to enumerate now some other reasons why you should use AIM instead of ICQ:
1)I have never recieved a single spam on AIM
2)Because all the traffic is proxied, I can limit who can send me messages without firewalling IPs
3)AOL has a strict abuse prevention system, where users can warn other users. When enough warning has acculumlated, their account is block temporarily. Though this system is occasionally abused by people, it is has been fairly successful in my view.

16 Dec 2000 12:18 Avatar aloomis

I have to disagree with Hadess's comment
The article is fine, it's just not really aimed at fm readers. I figured it was mostly posted here to generate conversation, and to provide something to point offenders at.

16 Dec 2000 12:09 Avatar hadess

Rather useless
I receive spam on my ICQ... And this article did not help me at all get rid of it. This article was about not creating spam... the kind of things that you can figure out yourself. This article, at most, takes the reader for a dumbass. I'm disappointed.


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