Paying for Spam: The Downside of the Ad Buy

It’s often easy to tell when spam has wormed its way into my Inbox. There are the telltale signs, the use of capital letters and about fourteen different exclamation points inserted at random into the subject line as if every other syllable needed some additional excitement.

The one downside of my recent surge in advertisement has been the trickle of spammers finding their way through Google’s filters (probably the same way they all found themselves with Gmail accounts) to get right out there in front of me. Of course it doesn't help to know that it's possible that I paid for the click that lead to the spam.

The last time I really paid any attention to a piece of spam was when I got my first notice from the Swiss National Lottery, after all who doesn’t love it when you win a lottery contest that you didn’t even enter.

That’s generally a good indicator in any scam, someone coming to you looking to give you something sight unseen. It was always the same way with all those Nigerian Finance Ministers and deposed presidents from Africa, you were seemingly plucked at random from the entire population of the United States as someone with a lot of sense and a good eye for great opportunities (like hiding $10 million in your bank account, just for a little bit).

The current wave, a few of which are sitting in my spam folder awaiting execution, are a good deal less creative. There are no elaborate back stories about wealthy scions held prisoner in Spain, essentially for ransom, only a couple of curt lines inquiring whether I’m looking for a job or collecting unemployment, or if I need help making “internet money(sic)”.

The most creative are the ones sending me to some scam site for allegedly free business cards, for my business (as opposed to calling cards, which are for leaving with the Bingleys after I’ve visited them at Netherfield). The spammer (possibly a computer program, possibly a person) randomly throws a new name onto the e-mail each time and flips back and forth between being an advertising or marketing major. See, as part of a class they’re supposed to promote a free product or service (they’re not making any money from this), and they all think that some free business cards are just the ticket.

I’m picturing that this business school is located in some strip mall in Florida, training a little legion of spammers to go out there and e-mail as many people as humanly (or inhumanly) possible because in the end someone might fall for it and all you did is spend 20 minutes gathering some addresses and writing a note. It gets a little more nefarious because it’s not about getting you to buy extra business cards from Vistaprint.com (the site that these spammers ultimately lead you to), it’s about Vistaprint’s allegedly poor business practices.

The first thing (http://www.planetmike.com/2007/04/24/vistaprint-sucks/) alleged is that they just outright sell off all your information to other spammers and annoying businesses after you register (since in order to ship some free business cards you need to give them your name, telephone number, address and probably your date of birth). Some of these businesses are vertically integrated with the company (allegedly), so while their terms of service look fair (they don’t share with unaffiliated organizations) the apparent protection is really something of a Trojan horse.

The second alleged problem according to Web sources is that Vistaprint or affiliated companies begin to ding your credit card for small amounts of money after you’ve given them your information under various pretexts. Generally these amounts are so small that most people don’t notice them until they’ve made quite a few payments (http://www.consumeraffairs.com/online/vistaprint.html).

These are the types of scams that you have to be careful with, where there’s nothing you’re putting up front and the bite only gets you a month or so later when you stopped paying attention. So be careful out there with gift horses, as much as you’d like to avoid looking them in the mouth you have to protect yourself.

Thankfully most of the time the spammers just respond off of my ad rather than through the e-mail form on my Web site, so it’s simple enough just to round them all up and send them right to the circular file.