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Spam, Scam and Snow
An Odyssey in Indy
April 2003

K. Joyce McDonald

Joyce is a senior technical writer for a local software company.

See her web page

I'm getting a lot of response from readers now, the content of which is quite good. If you write, be sure to let me know if I can use the content in an article and if you want me to use your name and/or e-mail address.

Preface:  To this article: It was only fitting that this article should get bounced around in the ether when I attempted to submit it to Clarke. When I sent it, I was aware that Clarke was probably still dancing hulas and sipping pina coladas in a tropical paradise. But the beauty of e-mail is that it waits. Or it usually does. This time, however, my submission was returned, unopened with a terse message from the electronic postmaster: “The intended recipient's mailbox is full.” Considering the subject of my submission, the irony is not lost on me.
I’m still wondering why I felt a sense of elation when I glanced out the airplane window above Indianapolis and saw a runway blanketed with snow. The logical response, since we were minutes short of landing, would have been panic—isn’t there usually ice under snow? I’m still puzzling over what thrilled me in such a way. I decided to write down the possibilities in hopes of gaining clearer insight. Some of my candidates were:
  • If the plane didn’t make it, I would never have to go through airport security again.
  • I haven’t seen snow in almost twenty years and I anticipated long walks in snow drifts and a chance to make my first “snow angel.”
  • My brain was in my stomach. All I could think about was my next bowl of borscht at Shapiro’s.
  • Thoughts of seeing my best friend for five days obliviated all negative feelings.
  • I anticipated being close by when the Indiana Senate voted 46-4 to outlaw Spam.

The first possibility had some merit. I consider myself a seasoned traveler, having spent on the average two weeks of every month on the road in recent years. However, the job that required travel ended before 9/11/01. Since then, the rules of travel have changed so drastically I don’t recognize them.

To its credit, the travel industry has risen to the occasion, becoming much more efficient at checking baggage and funneling passengers through the maze of airport security. Security personnel also appear to be much more alert for possible dangers, a comforting thought. One has to give them credit for diligent efforts to find the proverbial needle in a haystack — one intentional weapon in a sea of shampoo bottles and dirty socks.

But their efforts also succeed, through no fault of their own, at making the rest of us miserable. Ergo, the travel industry has an uphill battle trying to attract travelers who don’t have to and don’t want to travel.

The lessons that I learned from the Indianapolis trip, outside of the fact that a plane can land quite smoothly and safely on a blanket of snow, are these:

1 Avoid taking a laptop computer. It will take a beating, and you will likely be subjected to delays while it is inspected. My laptop traveled all around the security area before it finally came back to me. (Neither my Palm PDA nor my cell phone drew any attention.) I arrived two hours ahead of time for my flight and, after the laptop experience, I was glad I did.

2 Check your rolling suitcase at baggage check. Don’t try to carry it on the plane with you. Many of the major airlines use smaller planes that have overhead luggage compartments too small to accommodate even luggage approved for carry on. The airline attendant gives you an onboard check tag and stows larger items in the luggage compartment. They were quite efficient at returning our bags, but the chance of a lost bag fouling up a connection weighed heavy on my mind. To get to those smaller planes, I sometimes had to go outside and up stairways, another reason to forego the wheels.

3 Don’t lock your check baggage. The Transportation Security Administration isn’t crazy about cable ties either. I used a hot pink cable tie on one of my suitcases to hold the zipper shut and help me identify the bag on the pick up carousel. The cable tie was removed and replaced with a red cable tie. A note inside my baggage stated that the original seal was removed and replaced. It also gave me instructions to view further travel information at TSATravelTips.

4 Take along some snacks. No one feeds you and when they do, it’s a tiny bag of pretzels and half a can of soda. I recommend a lot of chocolate — great for stress.

5 Take along a good paperback book. Paper books entertain, pass security well, and you don’t have to turn them on and off when waiting for/boarding/landing/deboarding the plane. I have a complete library of Conan Doyle and Raymond Chandler books on my Palm PDA, but owing to interruptions and chancy battery life, I don’t count on this library to entertain me all the time.

6 I also avoid using my add-on PDA keyboard on trips. I have had two keyboards for two different PDAs and both tend to lock up the system, requiring a hard reset which wipes out all data. I carry sensitive, trip-related information, such as itineraries and e-ticket numbers on my Palm. Performing a hotsync operation in an airport on the fly (no pun intended) would negate the primary reason for carrying a PDA — that is, quick access to data.

7 When security says two carry-ons, they mean it. My fanny pack was considered a carry-on, and although my purse and briefcase were quite small, security personnel sent me back to the desk to check one of my bags. Luckily, I was able to duck into the restroom and stuff my fanny pack into my briefcase before continuing. 

The laptop caper was disconcerting, considering that the reason I dragged it along was to test out its Wi-Fi capabilities. The irony is that Wi-Fi is proliferating in airports at the very time when taking your laptop on a trip is least attractive. This may be a boon to handheld makers who are now incorporating Wi-Fi into their smaller devices. And, of course, for the business traveler for whom leaving the laptop at home is not an option, Wi-Fi is still a godsend.

Snow, borscht and good friends are compelling reasons for elation, but the prospect of outlawing Spam is certainly the real reason for my elation. It may be quixotic of the Indiana Senate to think that they can effectively outlaw Spam, but it is a start. The letter of the law, if the Indiana House now passes it, is that it is illegal to transmit electronic mail that obscures the origin of the mail or contains false or misleading information in the subject line.

An anti-Spam law is becoming a legal necessity because a person is trapped once Spammers get his/her e-mail address. Responding to Spam, even in a negative way (such as the “unsubscribe” option) plays right into the senders’ hands. It indicates a “live” e-mail address that the Spammers remove from the current list then sell to a million other Spammers.

Since I don’t get a lot of Spam, I usually delete it and go on with my life. However, if I get an e-mail that I find offensive, I tell Outlook to block the sender. Although emotionally satisfying, blocking a sender probably yields no better results than using the “unsubscribe” option. It could flag a “live” e-mail address for the sender. It is also ineffective because Spammers seldom use the same return address twice.

Recently, Spammers have learned a new trick called “resume highjacking.” They scan job seeker Websites posing as legitimate employers and grab e-mail addresses of job seekers. The hapless job seekers are then bombarded with Spam touting the services of for-pay job Websites and inane how-to-find-a-job seminars. Being a self-employed contractor, I get at least one of these goodies daily.

Spam has become so pervasive that even the Direct Marketing Association has joined the battle against it. Some naysayers insist that the DMA’s participation indicates only that the group wants to water down any legislation that does get passed. Be that as it may, this action still demonstrates that if junk mailers throw their considerable lobbying power behind Spam control, it must have become a serious problem.

Spammers will continue their harassment, however, as long as a few Bozos are willing to do their bidding. Believe it or not, some people have actually responded to the Nigerian scam whereby the Spammer pretends to hold an enormous amount of money that can be deposited into your account for safekeeping. All you have to do is provide some cash, your bank account number and social security number to unlock the funds. A Michigan woman is currently under indictment for embezzling two million dollars from her employer to take advantage of this “offer.”

Recently, the Wall Street Journal published the address of a website in the United Kingdom spamhaus.org, that helps identify Spam gangs. This site posts a list of heavy offenders, some of which include real mailing addresses. Journal columnist Jared Sandburg encourages you to “Write to the Spammers in unmarked envelopes. They would love to hear from you.”

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