Iowa State University

Inside Iowa State
July 17, 1998

Campus responds to proliferation of spam

by Diana Pounds

Last spring, campus staff received complaints that e-mail promoting an adult Web site was coming from Iowa State. An investigation revealed the mail hadn't really originated here, although to the 3,000 recipients, it certainly looked like an Iowa State piece. The mail had been diverted through an ISU college computer and carried a bogus "" return address.

Such stories have become common, as junk e-mail, known as spam, has invaded cyberspace. Perhaps most frustrating for those who find their e-mail boxes clogged with pitches for pyramid schemes, merchandise and Web sites is the difficulty of fighting back.

Spammers are as adept at concealing their e-mail addresses as they are at finding yours. Typically, the return address on spam goes no where, or worse, to an innocent party, whose address has been "borrowed" by the spammer.

While lawmakers develop legislation aimed at curbing spam around the country, Internet experts at Iowa State and elsewhere are looking for technical solutions. Staff were not able to track down the spammer who hit the college server in the spring, but the problem that allowed the spammer to "hijack" the server has been corrected.

Campus computer experts also have taken steps to keep faculty, staff and student addresses off spam mail lists. Spammers typically use special software that mines Web sites for e-mail addresses. ISU mail and Web servers have been configured to make such mining difficult, if not impossible, said Sly Upah, Computation Center system analyst and "postmaster" for ISU Internet mail activities.

A more drastic anti-spam measure that has been employed at Iowa State and elsewhere is to simply turn away all mail coming into the university from an Internet domain.

"We have blocked a few sites that are known to be strictly used for spamming," said Mike Bowman, assistant director of the Computation Center, "but we have to be very careful. When you block a site, you block all the legitimate mail too."

Bowman added that the ISU Code of Computer Ethics prohibits use of university computing facilities for spamming. Those who violate this policy could be charged through the university judicial system.

How to jam a spammer

ISU Computation Center staff and other Internet experts offer the following suggestions for reducing spam in your e-mail box:

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Revised 7/16/98