Earth ... clunk


It had to happen. After years of just normal, run-of-the-mill email spam for everything from designer watches to male enhancement, from pleas from Third World dictators to help them get their money out of the country by borrowing my bank account, to various pornographic promises that could keep me occupied 24 hours a day (and give me the stamina to do so), my email inbox has suddenly been flooded with messages whose subjects read, variously: Mail System Failure, Mail Delivery Subsystem, MAILER-DAEMON, Barracuda Firewall, etc. All you non-Luddites out there will know that messages with these subjects usually mean that you’ve sent an email and it bounced back: either you got the address wrong, or the Web was constipated, or the queue was just too damn long and it timed out and will try again.

However, when more than 100 of these appear within an hour, and sometimes 500 - 750 or more a day, well . . . I may be a bit impatient if I don’t get a response to an important email, but I’ve never been one to hector, or for mailing lists. Something was wrong. Very wrong.

At first I deleted them. Then I opened one cautiously, aware that it might run a script that would get me in more trouble. What I found inside, hidden in the gobbledy-gook of headers and server addresses, was an add for Gucci knockoffs. Oh well . . .

I decided to create some filters in my email program – Eudora; I know, I should be using Gmail, but I’ve been using Eudora for so long and have everything organized so well ...anyway, they didn’t work. Don’t know why. They used to.

Next I logged into my email account on the Web. It’s Earthlink. They have all sorts of spam-blocking software and mine had always been set on medium because, frankly, I didn’t want to upload my whole email address book to their site and set the blocking to high and get only emails from people in my address book. Sometimes I like to hear from someone new. That would mean checking the spam mailbox ANYWAY, to cull out the messages I wanted.

I called Earthlink support. First I had to wade through endless menus that constantly tried to redirect me to use an automated system, or to go online and start a "chat" with a chat agent. My wife tried the chat once and got so frustrated she kept typing, "Are you even a human being? Are you alive? You are a robot," into the little chat box. She may have salted in a few ripe observations about their parentage, as well, just to, you know, see ....

The response to her frustration was akin to "Does not compute."

Anyway, I finally got somebody half a world away. Explained the problem. “Perhaps you should set your spam-blocker to high and upload your address book,” he said, with an indeterminate accent. I sort of like it when I get someone from India or South America. They try hard. If only the line echo wasn't so distracting. (At least I didn't hear: "Perhaps you should reinstall your operating system." The last time I heard that on a customer support call to Dell, I simply said, "No way." Amazing how this can lead to a more elegant solution.)

However, a few thousand spams later, I took their advice and set the spam blocker on high, and uploaded my address book after spending an hour editing a messy conversion to the comma-separated-values (.csv) file format.

Now I leave one of my browsers logged into my webmail and I spend a few minutes every hour marking and deleting spam. I didn't opt for the nice bounce-back email telling correspondents they could possibly join my address book by logging into the site and leaving their info so I could approve them, because I hate that when I get one. And besides, that just spams the spammers. And, as you'll see below, that would have resulted in a nice bit of irony.

Finally, with no end in sight, curiosity and a relentless desire to fix the problem got the better of me, and I opened another bit of spam, this time on the Earthlink site -- in case a malicious script was lurking.

I noticed something interesting. I was spamming myself.

The ultimate senders’ addresses were my own. Well, not exactly my own. If you have an Earthlink address, it ends in (dot) net – not (dot) com. But these addresses were mine, only at Somehow this perversion of my email address, for a domain that isn’t supposed to exist, had gotten on a list, and was being used to send out spam. When those emails got bounced back, they didn’t go to the senders, but to my inbox. Not that they are technically supposed to, since my inbox ends in (dot) net.

Hmm. Called Earthlink and explained. "I've figured out the problem."

“Yes. No, dot com is not valid. This is not right. Give us your phone number and we’ll call within 24 hours and fix this.”

Yeah right. That was a week and three phone calls ago.

I tried calling the corporate offices in Atlanta, but they have highly effective blockers in place to weed out complaining customers. It’s called “ignoring the messages left on your answering machine.” If I don't get a response soon, I'm going to edit this post and include the name of the guy who is blowing me off. (Fair warning)

So what am I complaining about here? Spam? Sure. Don’t like it. Who does? But it’s more about customer service. It’s non-existent. Or half-existent. Everyone is sorry for my problem but can't fix it. I can't speak to anyone in the department that actually futzes with the bytes and bits. Even the customer service rep claims they have to email that department.

If someone from Earthlink who can actually do something, or knows something – instead of some well-meaning functionary who can only pass me up the line to a series of apologetic supervisors -- but no further -- would call (or write; I promise not to filter them out) and let me know if they can block messages bouncing back to the (dot) com version of my email address, or not, I’d be happy. Then I’d either have the problem fixed, or I’d change the address I’ve had since 1997 . . . which would cause me a big headache since I have a book coming out in April and my address is on the little business cards the publisher gave me to promote the book.

C’mon Earthlink. Get it together. I know my monthly fee (times 11 years) is paltry in the big picture, but if you can't or won't fix this, then I won't be the first to leave, and you will no longer be part of the picture.

Tell you the truth, I've had a Gmail account for a couple years. Maybe I'll start using it.

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