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October 14, 2007

Spammers Making Life Even More Miserable

Back in 1971, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) was formed "to ensure employee safety and health in the United States by working with employers and employees to create better working environments" (from the OSHA web site). Shortly thereafter, I got my first job after college as a manufacturing management trainee (don't ask) at a steel fabrication company outside of Chicago. The company facilities were long in the tooth even back then, so bringing the plant and plant employees up to OSHA compliance was no easy or cheap task.

Many old timers (not just at my old employer, mind you) held a belief that some OSHA regulations seemed to go overboard in protecting workers from their own carelessness. It was therefore not uncommon to find many factory managers in complete agreement with a satirical cartoon entitled "Cowboy After O.S.H.A." It shows how a cowboy and his horse need to be equipped to comply with OSHA, including a rollbar, prescription safety goggles for the horse, four wheels to keep the horse upright in case he slips, and so on. In the end, neither the cowboy nor horse is recognizable for all the extra gear needed to protect them in the workplace.

This picture comes to mind every time I encounter yet another hoop through which I must jump to perform a simple computing task because the web site, operating system, or piece of software is having to protect me from malicious actions of spammers or scammers. The hoop provider this time is eBay.

I've been active on eBay recently, and have received several messages from potential bidders on my auctions. The messages come through eBay's message service, which provides a decent system of keeping messages strictly between eBay members. I elect to use the service like a web-based email system, which means that I view incoming messages in the My Messages area, and respond there, as well. I don't recall ever receiving a spam message through this service (although I have seen plenty of bogus phishing messages in my regular email inbox claiming to come from eBay members).

Today, however, as I responded to a new message through the eBay system, I found that I had to enter a CAPTCHA code. The image was on the edge of being so distorted as to invite an error (about which I have reported before). Bear in mind that in order to reach the My Messages section of the eBay site, you must enter your eBay username and password. In other words, I had already been pre-qualified as a legitimate member, yet I still had to solve the CAPTCHA puzzle.

I can only guess that this new hoop is to head off a problem that has begun to plague popular sites such as Facebook and MySpace. In those sites, spammers have opened up numerous accounts, which they use to spam other members via the internal messaging systems of those sites. Spam only pays when it can be done in bulk, so the CAPTCHA code is probably intended to prevent simple automatons from signing up with an eBay account and sending lots of spam to anyone listing an item for sale on the site. Thanks to spammers' latest tactics, my regular Internet activity becomes even more burdensome.

Pretty soon, every web site will be equipped with a rollbar, and we'll all have to wear safety goggles and steel-tipped gloves to send an electronic message.

Posted on October 14, 2007 at 07:03 PM