Andrey Listopadov

Spam Rant

@rant @misc ~7 minutes read

Who doesn’t dislike spam? Well, apparently this guy loves it, but in a kind of special way. I definitively don’t like spam, even a clever one, but unfortunately, we all have to deal with it to some extent. This is a rant on spam because I was just fed up with it once again.

There are several categories of spam in my life:

  1. E-Mail spam.
  2. Spam calls.
  3. SMS spam.
  4. Promoted spam.

I think you all are familiar with the first three categories, and as much as I dislike these, there’s not much to say about them.

At least, the first two are kind of easy to deal with. I don’t read 99% of e-mails that end up in my spam folder, conveniently managed for me by GMail. While I don’t really like GMail, and rather move to a self-hosted mail, Google does a pretty decent job at tracking spam, even with all smart features being “disabled”. I never answer calls that aren’t on my contact list, unless I’m waiting for some kind of delivery. This is an easy fix because you can make your phone only make a sound when someone from your contact list is calling you, or even writing a message.

But the last two categories are hard to deal with.

SMS spam

SMS is still widely used for delivering various kinds of information to people. And for some reason, it is considered an official communication channel by a lot of people. For example, when you need to secure an operation in your bank, it will likely send you an SMS with a confirmation code. At least this was the case until some years ago when most banks I use switched to using their respecting application on Android/iOS, which is used to show the code now.

But still, some companies may send you such codes from time to time, and that’s basically the only useful case for SMS today. Well, emergency notifications are also distributed via SMS in my country, which may give SMS a kind of official status, but these are also broadcasted via other channels. However, mainly due to the confirmation codes it’s really hard to ignore SMS, and most of the SMS messaging apps (on Android, at least) use a modern conversation view, as opposed to how older phones worked with SMS as per separate messages. And this leads to a problem.

The first one is that you can’t block SMS from non-contacts, because these security codes are likely to be sent from some corporate number. While you could add such numbers to your contact lists, and be done with it, the problem arises when you want an SMS from a new service, so you basically have to disable filtering. Which defeats the purpose.

And the second problem is worse because the spam comes from the same phone numbers that are used to send you security codes. My bank, for example, not only shows me ads when I use their official app but also occasionally sends me ads via SMS from the same number they use to confirm operations. And they use the same number for spam calls too! You basically have to accept this. I call it promoted spam because it uses the same communication channel it uses for important stuff, just so you couldn’t block it easily.

Other companies, like clothing companies, for instance, have these club cards, that you register in order to have a discount from time to time or some other benefits. Guess what, in order to register such a card you have to supply both your phone number and your e-mail. And while e-mail is easy enough to ignore, they just keep spamming you with new ads even though the last time you’ve bought anything from them was 3 years ago. For that matter, you can’t give them a fake phone number because of the confirmation code they sent you before applying for a discount.

The most fun part is that my phone operator has a paid feature that blocks such SMS spam! And they remind me of it every single time I get a spam message that they have an anti-spam feature I can subscribe to. It’s like, they know it’s a spam SMS, they let it through, and immediately after it reaches you, they send another spam SMS that advertises you an anti-spam feature! I’d rather change my operator than subscribe to something like that.

Just unsubscribe

This is what I often hear when I brag about spam or read about it online.

Well, first of all, not all spam is something I’ve willingly subscribed to. Some of it is automated when you register a club card or some other account of sorts, and usually, there’s no way to disable these messages upon registration.

Some services don’t even have a way to cancel subscriptions! I once participated in a micro-controller-related conference, and in order to sign up, I used my personal e-mail, instead of the work one. It was a giant mistake, motivated by the fact, that due to security reasons it was impossible to use work e-mail outside the office, and I thought that I may need my e-mail for confirmation or some paperwork when I’ll arrive. Not only I didn’t need it, but I still receive yearly emails about upcoming conferences, highlights, and other stuff. And there’s no way to unsubscribe. I don’t have an account, their e-mail is random every time, they don’t respect GMail’s “unsubscribe me” feature, and there’s no e-mail to write back to a real human to take me off the mailing list. I’ve made a custom rule that deletes messages from them automatically, but it still manages to come through somehow sometimes.

And I’m not even talking about malicious spam, which is a different kind of beast at all. You can’t unsubscribe from it, obviously. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be as effective as it is.

But as I’ve said - e-mail is easy enough to automate and ignore, but SMS isn’t.

Much like the situation with the conference, you can’t unsubscribe from most promoted SMS spam. Companies just don’t even admit they’re sending anything to you like these messages don’t exist. I’ve tried coming to a customer’s office and speaking with a manager about the issue, but they basically told me to give up, and accept the situation as is. I’ve changed operator since then, but the story repeated.

So, no. You can’t unsubscribe from the majority of annoying spam. It’s not a solution. Forget it.

Just ignore it

I’ve used e-mail for a long time, and in the early days, I spent a lot of time marking stuff as spam, because filters weren’t that good enough yet, and spammers were creative. But not all people spent time, analyzing what is a spam message and what isn’t. And, more importantly, spammers are creative, and when we’re talking about malicious spam, which wants not only to advertise something you don’t want but also to steal your money or personal information, scammers today are as creative as they have ever been.

I’ve linked a TED talk at the beginning of this rant, and there’s one example of spam, that I’m not getting too often, but still see in the spam folder from time to time. But I know some people, who were victims of such emails, sending money to scammers.

And that’s the problem. Spam works, and spammers get what they want more often than you think.

There are a lot of similarities between spam messages/calls and TV advertisements. They steal your time and focus and promote you something you likely don’t even need. And unfortunately, nothing can be done about it really.

You can be extremely careful, and not put your e-mail and phone number anywhere, and while this cuts a lot, there are still systems that probe wide ranges of phone numbers automatically. I’ve actually tried it several times, and still somehow managed to get spam, even though nobody knows about this e-mail address, and phone number.

With SMS there’s also a point of trust because so much secure information comes through this communication channel, I’m a bit afraid to use anti-spam systems. As they will likely send my SMS to their server, and we all know that user personal data leaks every week these days.

So, yeah, unfortunately, spam is something I just had to accept, and I’m not sure if the situation will ever get better.