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Spam the Spammers
Dec 19, 2006, 1:32p - Technology

When I was home for Thanksgiving, my dad told me about something he'd been doing for the past few years with his (non-electronic) junk mail. Nearly all junk mail comes with postage-paid return envelopes (aka Business Reply Mail), for you to send back the credit card offers or what-not. Instead of sending back what the company wants you to send back, my dad would just send crap back in those envelopes. Privacy policies, updates to the terms of service, glossy inserts, anything except for a filled-in credit card application. I thought this was brilliant. The spammers pay for the return postage, and get their own spam sent back to them. I wondered if they would get charged a lot more than bulk mail rates if I put rocks or pieces of metal in the envelopes, but my dad thought the post office might decide not to deliver it if it looked that suspicious.

Apparently this is an old idea, but it was the first I'd heard of it, and it's so blatantly obvious I can't believe I didn't think of it on my own. One thing my dad doesn't do is include materials with his name in the resent spam. I'm not sure if this is best, since a company may stop sending you their spam if they can figure out who keeps sending it back. On the flip side, if a ton of people sent back the spam, anonymity may cause more frustration and make the spammers stop sending spam to everyone. Perhaps that's just wishful thinking...

Why not just mark the mail as "Return to Sender"? Apparently, you can only do that if the mail is unopened, and often times it's hard to tell spam just from the envelope. Also, it's not clear if the spammer gets billed.

Another thing my dad likes to do is to leave the envelope unsealed, because that screws with automatic envelope-opening machines. There's also the question of what to do with non-profit spam - is it right to send it back? More than half the spam I receive seems to come from them, but so far I've restrained myself from sending their spam back. I do give donations, but rarely to any organization I get spam from.

Bottom line: I think if enough people sent back their spam, we could end this type of spam once and for all. Let's do a little math.

- Assume postage-paid envelopes cost $0.20 per mailed envelope (basically a bulk mail discount; I'm not sure what the actual cost would be)
- Assume there are 100M household in the US, each of which receives 10 pieces of mail per day.
- Assume that 50% of the mail is spam
- Assume that 50% of the spam includes postage-paid return envelopes
- Then, of the 1B pieces of mail delivered by the post-office daily, 500M is spam, and 250M have postage-paid return envelopes
- So, the total cost per day of spam returned to spammers, if all households returned spam, would be $50M per day, or $15B per 300-day year

$15B/year is a lot for credit-card companies and other nefarious outfits to lose. Of course, this assumes full participation, though a more realistic participation rate (say 1-2%) would still qualify as a full-fledged movement. $150M is a lot to lose, and could substantially change the cost-benefit equation for spammers.

There are some ways to get removed from mailing lists, but they're tedious, may require renewal, and it's unclear how well they'll work.

So you in? So far, I think I've sent back ~10 pieces of mail, and it's a funny feeling. It only takes a few extra seconds, and it feels good. I've hacked up a simple page where you can go and add your name if you're planning to send back your spam: Pledge to Send Spam Back.

And apparently, I'm not the only one. That guy claims he can get the return envelope to cost $2! And here are some more people doing it. And here's someone who takes a more conventional, though less interesting approach.

Read comments (2) - Comment

Sachin - Dec 19, 2006, 3:10p
I heard about this a few months ago. If I get an offer where the envelope is like "Amex, 0% intro APR" i just trash it. But if it's something with no return label and "Urgent reply needed" and it ends up being spam, then I'm going to stuff that envelope with as much crap as possible. I can't believe spammers are allowed to have no return address on their spam.

If it's a credit card application, I usually take the application, cross over it and write something like "take me off your list." It probably does nothing, but then they know who sent it to them.

I have a standing monthly donation to Care that is billed on my credit card. A couple months ago I started getting a phone call from an unknown number (not hidden, but unknown to me). I looked it up online and found lots of complains about it. It was a telemarketing company hired by companies like Care.

Eventually I did answer their call and they said they were calling on behalf of Care. I felt like stopping my monthly donation to them. I dont know if I checked any box that said "don't call me" but it still upset me to get calls on my cell phone. Its worse that it wasn't from Care themselves but someone they hired. I may trust Care with my info, but do I trust these people?

nikhil - Dec 20, 2006, 12:24a
Yeah, that's lame. I'm not sure exactly what to do about the non-profits...

Also, don't forget to sign the pledge:

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