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Today's protection racket: Pay up or be "spammed'

In the old days, a large gentleman with no neck and a nose that went thataway would drop by your shop and say: "Ya know, there's a lot of arson and burglary and vandalism in the neighborhood. Maybe we can help each other. Pay me, and I'll protect you."

In the new days, an outfit in Los Angeles, HLD Publishing Co., offers to stop "spamming" you in cyberspace _ for a fee. It isn't extortion, because spamming seems to be legal. But as strong-arm tactics go, this would be alarming if it weren't so laughable.

Spamming is indiscriminately sending advertising messages to e-mail addresses and discussion groups. It ranges from annoying to sleazy, and it's getting worse.

HLD, which didn't answer its phone when I called twice this month, recently sent its message to newsgroups. The company said it was selling software that would monitor activity on your computer so you could find out if your spouse was "chatting online with someone else" or other such things. No phone number was listed, just an address and a request for money _ precisely the kind of ad to which you should never respond.

As spam ads go, this was fairly routine. What took it beyond the routine was the end, where it notified "Newsgroup Moderators, Managers or Vested Interest Subscribers" that HLD would agree not to spam an individual newsgroup if paid $95 a year.

HLD also said it would not let anyone "cancel" its ads without paying $95. Canceling means deleting the posting from all publicly accessible computers to which it has been sent around the world. Anyone stupid enough to send these bozos $95 should be in the market for bridges in Brooklyn.

HLD sent its postings from an Internet account it had with Cinenet, an access provider in Los Angeles. Bombarded with angry phone calls and e-mail, Cinenet quickly "terminated their accounts" _ that is, kicked HLD off the system for Net-abuse, said Hidayathulla Sulaiman, a system administrator.

That's also a standard practice by spammers. They set up accounts, send their messages, get kicked off by the access provider and start all over again with another provider. There seems to be no effective way to stop them.

Newsgroup spams bother me less than e-mail spams. The former are mostly annoying. The latter are infuriating and getting out of control. My America Online mailbox has been bombarded lately with spams. AOL does seem to be trying to do something about this, but it's losing the war. If there's ever a nuclear holocaust, the only things left alive afterward will be cockroaches and spammers.

I'm hoping for some help here in Silicon Valley, where some of the smartest people in the world are creating fantastic new hardware and software products. I offer the following challenge:

Please, won't some of you work on a solution to the spamming problem? E-mail filters and artificial intelligence have great potential, among other technologies. I and many other consumers will pay real money for a solution.

Meanwhile, send me your ideas. I'll print the best ones, here and on the Web.

Write Dan Gillmor at the Mercury News, 750 Ridder Park Drive, San Jose, CA 95190; (408) 920-5016; fax (408) 920-5917. Mercury Center/America Online: dgillmor; Internet: dgillmorsjmercury.com.

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