If you logged on to America Online last week, you may well have found E-mail waiting from someone you never heard of imploring you to JOIN US AT PINK PUSSY CLUB THE HOTTEST SITE FOR XXX LIVE GIRL SEX SHOWS!! or proclaiming OVER 1,000 EROTIC AND EXOTIC SHOWS!!!!!! CLICK HERE TO ENTER or any of hundreds of similar electronic come-ons.
Spam--unsolicited junk E-mail--is perhaps the most irritating feature of online life. Its purveyors use powerful software to "harvest" screen names and then ship out bulk electronic mail bearing sales pitches or get-rich-quick schemes. But erotic spam is more than just irritating. It is offensive to many, and if there are young kids in the house, it can be downright scary. Children may not be that interested in getting rich quick, but they may be tempted to peek at an X-rated Website. And while that is reasonably easy to do in any case, the E-mail come-ons can put the steamiest sites in cyberspace just a mouse click away.
While all the online services get spammed, America Online is particularly vulnerable. One reason is that it's by far the largest, with about 10 million subscribers, giving E-mailers a large, captive pool of targets. Another is that AOL members are encouraged to fill out self-descriptive "profiles" that spammers can easily sift through to assemble lists of potential customers.
A couple of years ago, parents couldn't do much about such mailings. Replying to the E-mail, whether to complain or to get taken off a mailing list, was sometimes the worst possible move, since many spammers would simply redouble their efforts. But AOL, which bills itself as a family service, has tried to respond to complaints. It now offers parents two major lines of defense, known as mail controls and parental controls. Adults can keep kids from receiving E-mail altogether or let them get it only from other AOL members or from a specified list of approved senders. E-mail from problematic domains like __.com (fill in the blank) can also be blocked. And parents can prevent kids from receiving files attached to E-mails, since some spammers offer a taste of their products by enclosing pornographic pictures. (The controls can also be set to keep kids away from certain Websites; to keep them out of AOL's private chat rooms, where sexual talk is not uncommon; and to prevent the sending and receiving of "instant messages," a kind of impromptu E-mail that members use to approach each other directly.)
Beyond that, if an objectionable E-mail should get through, members can forward it to a department known as TOSspam (TOS stands for Terms of Service, AOL's internal police force), which can help the service take legal action. Last November, for example, it got a preliminary injunction against a firm called Over the Air Equipment, which not only sent sexually oriented spam but forged the AOL logo as well to suggest that the online provider was its partner.