A Note on Spam

If you have just signed up or are considering signing up to post comments on the site’s discussion forum, be advised there is a chance that your account will be deleted if you don’t post something within a day or two of signing up. A typical pattern for spammers is to sign up to a site and then return a week or so later to post their spam messages. I have a policy of deleting obvious spam accounts immediately and deleting all new accounts after two to three days with no activity. Once a member has posted a (non-spam) message to the forum, the account stays active regardless of future periods of inactivity.

So if you are a newcomer and like the site, but don’t have anything to say right away, hold off on signing up until you want to make a comment. Lurkers are welcome and you can read everything on the site without signing up. If you find your account has been deleted between signing up and posting your first message, just sign up again and post your message.

(I’m using the word spam to denote the practice of placing marketing messages in web-forums. Some might say that spam is rightly only applied to email, but I don’t know what else to call it.)

On a typical day, some 20–50 new “members” sign up. Of these, well over 99% are spammers. The numbers would be even higher, but the Captcha software stops most of the robotic spammers. I suspect the ones that get through have some human in the loop, probably some low-paid drone in South Asia, but some sophisticated bots can get around Captcha. Relatively few of the spammers actually end up posting to the forum; most are just content to occupy a space on the list of members.

Every day, usually in the morning as I’m drinking my coffee, I look at the list of new members and delete the spammers. It’s not a big burden, taking typically 2-3 minutes each day. If a spammer posts something and it is reported, I’ll go ahead and delete that account right away and not wait until the next morning—so there is value in reporting spam and other abuse when you see it.

The spammers are quite easy to identify. I won’t describe the characteristics that make them so—it’s unlikely that any spammer would be reading this, but you never know, and I don’t want to them to go and change what they’re doing. Suffice to say that while they are technically adept at getting past sophisticated anti-spam software, they’re idiots when it comes to crafting personality profiles that sound like they are actual humans. Since all the spammers share so many distinctive characteristics, I suspect that the entire problem is either caused by a handful of offenders, or all the spammers use the same spam-generating software package.

One thing is worth noting though. Some 80% (a rough estimate; I haven’t bothered to actually count them) of the spammers use gmail accounts to do their dirty work. I’ve tried to alert Google to this, but have received no response and there is nothing that I can find on the gmail web pages that allude to this practice—all the abuse pages talk about is spam email. I’ve considered banning gmail from the site altogether, but that would eliminate too many legitimate users. Some of the spammers use Yahoo and Hotmail, but these two services evidently have much better protections than Google in this regard. (So if anyone from Google is reading this, please get in touch with me. I can’t be the only site having this issue.)

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