A Brief History of Spam-The Early Years

80sWelcome back to our series on a brief history of spam. In this post we are going to take a look at some of the early years of the Internet, when there were more than just ARPA funded researchers working on it, but before the growth exploded and everyone and their cousin had an email account and a web page. We’re going to look at some of the significant spam messages of the late 80s and early 90s.

The first charity spam

In 1988, a supposed college student started posting requests for money to as many USENET groups as he could find. USENET, which is still alive and well today, is a distributed web forum/newsgroup/BBS style system, with tens of thousands of different groups dedicated to practically any topic one could imagine. In 1988 there were already hundreds of groups and tens of thousands of users, so this reached a lot of users and had the potential to net the sender big money. Here’s the text of this first scam.

Poor College Student needs Your Help!!   :-(

Hi.  I just finished my junior year in college, and now I’m faced with a major problem.  I can’t afford to pay for my senior year.  I’ve tried everything.  I can’t get any more student loans, I don’t qualify for any more scholarships, and my parents are as broke as am I.  So as you can see, I’ve got a major problem.  But as far as I can see, there is only one solution, to go forward. I’ve come along way, and there is no chance in hell that I’m going to drop out now!  I’m not a quiter, and I’m not going to give up.

But here is why I’m telling you all this.  I want to ask a favor of every one out here on the net.  If each of you would just send me a one dollar bill, I will be able to finish college and go on with my life. I’m sure a dollar is not much to any of you, but just think how it could change a person’s life.  I’d really like to encourage all of you to help me out, I’ve no other place to go, no other doors to knock on.  I’m counting on all of you to help me! (PLEASE!) If you would like to help a poor boy out, please send $1 (you can of course send more if you want!!  :-)

Jay-Jay’s College Fund PO BOX 5631 Lincoln, NE  68505

PS.  Please don’t flame me for posting this to so many newsgroups, I really am in dire need of help, and if any of you were as desparate as I am, you just might resort to the same thing I am.  Also, please don’t tell me to get a job!  I already have one and work over 25 hrs a week, plus get in all my classes, plus find time to study!  So hey, please consider it!  It would really mean a lot to me.  Thank you!

NOTE: Any extra money I receive will go to a scholarship fund to help others in the same situation.  :-)

Initial reactions were critical, with some users trying to band together to register a complaint with the US Postal Service for mail fraud, based on the sender’s request to mail him money.

Get Rich Quick Schemes

Also in 1988, another scam in the form of a “Make Money Fast” (MMC) chain letter started to make the rounds, being forwarded countless times in emails as well as being posted to USENET groups. The alleged sender was named Dave Rhodes, but there is a great deal of uncertainty as to whether this was even a real person, or several different people using the same alias. The phenomena of MMF rapidly grew out of control, with hundreds of variants. Most, if not all of these, were simply pyramid schemes reborn for the digital age.

Automated Retroactive Minimal Moderation (ARMM)

In an effort to combat the growing problem of noise, junk, and general spam messages being posted to USENET, Dick Depew created ARMM in 1993. ARMM was supposed to be able to go into USENET and retroactively cancel (delete) posts that were anonymous or otherwise junk. ARMM would submit a control message about its actions to the affected group. Unfortunately, ARMM thought its own control messages were spam, and started cancelling its own, and then updating the group with a control message. This led to a message flood of hundreds of messages, each slightly longer than the last since they referenced the subject line and headers. Each iteration included ARMM: in the subject, and “Automated Retroactive Minimal Moderation ™ by ARMM5.  Press ‘n’ to skip.” in the header, and each successive message added those to the previous.

Most USENET users thought this was hilarious, and gave Depew some amount of good natured ribbing, but a few went thermonuclear over the bandwidth usage and in at least one case, a crashed server. You can read more of the original thread here.

Then it gets all religious

In January of 1994, Clarence Thomas, the sysadmin of Andrews University, posted a message to every single USENET group with the subject line “Global Alert for All: Jesus is Coming Soon.” Rather than cross posting, he posted a unique message to every one of them. Two ways to fire up Internet denizens, whether in 1994 or today, are to talk about politics, or religion, and this post fired up the masses (pun intended.) It’s far too long to include in this article, but you can read it here if you wish. The university received a flood of complaints, but there is little indication that it caused Thomas any trouble.

As the Internet grew into the 90’s, and AOL, Windows 3.1, and cheap modems made it possible for millions of people to get on the Internet, have email addresses, and receive spam, the problem of spam took off like a rocket. In our next post, we will take a look at some statistics to see just how the Internet’s popularity and the growth of spam correlate.

Written by Casper Manes

I currently work as a Senior Messaging Consultant for one of the premier consulting firms in the world, I cut my teeth on Exchange 5.0, and have worked with every version of Microsoft’s awesome email package since then, as well as MHS, Sendmail, and MailEnable systems. I've written dozens of articles on behalf of my past employers, their partners, and others, and I finally decided to embrace blogging and social media, so please follow me on Twitter @caspermanes if you enjoy my posts.

0 Comments

  1. Laura · March 14, 2013

    I laughed a lot at the first anti-spam filter, if I may call it this but it makes all the misbehaviors of today’s spam filters look minor. I enjoy the series really a lot and I do learn some really interesting stuff. Keep the good work coming!

  2. Baldwin · March 20, 2013

    That first letter got me into thinking. Is it really possible that we can set up a system where valid charities and persons in need can send out mass e-mails? To make sure it isn’t categorized as spam, users can add their mails into the database, and they can choose what kinds of requests they want to receive or people or organizations they want to support. It’s very similar to Kickstarter, only that this one is done through email. I think it would be putting “spam” to good use. I won’t even want to call it spam because you’ve asked permission.

  3. Antonio Jose · March 28, 2013

    The “Jesus Is Coming Soon” incident is something that’s very much alive today. Well, at least in some ways, it is. The only difference today is that it’s not just in your email; it’s all over the social networks! They may not be spam, really. But they’re still to be considered that way as many use religion – and politics – to scare the heck out of people. Everyday, you see posts of “If you love Jesus, click this or you will_______”. I believe that is one form of spam – and one that we all should be wary of.

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