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Jewish World Review Nov. 20, 2003 / 25 Mar-Cheshvan, 5764

Lenore Skenazy

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Consumer Reports

The more things change, the more they remain a shame | NEW YORK For a while there I was getting so many "Add 3 inches!" E-mails, I started wondering if maybe I had an appendage I didn't know about.

But peni-spam is only one part of the giant problem that is unwanted E-mail. From home mortgages to farm animals, pills for when you're down to pills that get you up, neither filter nor legislation seems able to stem the tide. Unwanted messages account for 50% of all E-mails - up from 7% just two years ago.

Personally, I'm getting more than 50 spams a day, the vast majority of them lewd, crude or from the International Bank of Nigeria, where the incredibly selective chief financial officer has been "reliably informed of [my] discreteness" [sic] and therefore set aside $18.5 million for us to split ... if I send him some money up-front.

Amazing how much he knows about me but still addresses me as "sir."

Anyway, the thing about wading through this sewer of spam each morn is not just that it's annoying and a waste of time. It's also plain old depressing.

Remember how it felt to stroll through the old Times Square? That's what scrolling through spam feels like. On pre-Disney 42nd St., hustlers were always offering you things illegal, illicit or icky. You had your pick of peep shows and porno flicks. Name-brand bargains turned out to be cheap knockoffs. There were drugs for sale, of course, and three-card monte games for the suckers. If you were really desperate, you could even buy a piping-cold knish.

The crusty mustard was free.

Now, spam has turned our inboxes into the electronic equivalent of the red-light district - minus the knishes. For, "Hey, sailor" simply substitute "How are you? I missed you last night!" or, strangely, "If I could kiss you until you're bowling." (Got that one this morning.) Click on these solicitations and, wham, your desk becomes a den of iniquity.

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"It's like every con man in the world has gotten into your personal space," says Tiffany Shlain, founder of the Webby Awards for best Web sites.

She's right about the con part. Not only is there no way to "Reverse Aging While Burning Fat Without Dieting or Exercise!" (sorry - I should have broken that to you more gently), but even those spammers selling prescription drugs like Valium and Vicodan don't deliver.

"They're just trying to get you to send them $30 in the mail," says David Strickler, CEO of the anti-spam service MailWise. "You're hoping that something will arrive in the mail, and nothing ever does. But you're a little embarrassed to call your local police department and say, 'Can you track down these illicit drugs I was trying to buy over the net?'" So you don't.

At another E-mail filtering company, SurfControl, "We've been watching [spam] trends for quite a long time," says vice president Susan Larson. The top three topics are and always will be: porn, drugs and get-rich-quick schemes.

Seems the more things change, the more they remain a shame.

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JWR contributor Lenore Skenazy is a columnist for The New York Daily News. Comment by clicking here.

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© 2003, New York Daily News