Spam’s long shelf life

How my inbox won’t let me forget my past.

Illustration by Dave Cutler

A COUPLE OF WEEKS AGO, cyber security experts sabotaged the Grum botnet, a network of hundreds of thousands of infected computers that in its heyday churned out an estimated 18 billion junk e-mails each day — roughly one-third of the world’s spam. So farewell, Mr. Felix Bamba, “Accountant in reputable Bank in West Africa.” I hope you find a “co-confidant” to take that $25,500,000 off your hands.

This victory solves only part of the problem, though. The real clots in our in-boxes come from spam that is more insidious because it is actually legitimate —though no less annoying than ungrammatical pleas from shady strangers. This legacy spam consists of missives from actual companies with which we once had relationships: reminders of Amazon gifts ordered for ex-boyfriends, deals from restaurants best forgotten. Message after message recalls the person we once were and might never wish to be again. It’s the modern equivalent of cringing at your high school yearbook. Nowadays, the past is persistent and delivered via automated mailing list.

Portion of e-mail traffic made up of spam, according to security firm Symantec.

The daily e-mails fall into three general categories. The first involves special interest groups that maintain a chokehold on everyone in their databases. I routinely receive missives from President Obama and his staff. Their ominous, overly familiar subject lines are scarier than anything from West Africa. Titles like “It’s officially over” and “This is not a joke” don’t exactly make me want to run to my nearest campaign office to distribute leaflets. As possible compensation, Obama staffers occasionally send chummy notes, addressed to “friend,” asking me to wish the president happy birthday and the like. Hey, Obama, if we’re so tight, where was my invite to that fund-raiser at Sarah Jessica Parker’s?


 The second category involves purchases that dredge up painful memories. Tops on my list is the overzealous FTD, which seems to urge me to recognize loved ones on Arbor Day, National Hot Dog Day, every Monday. I used this service once: to order my grandmother a birthday bouquet. My beloved Nana passed away five years ago, a fact that I’m reminded of each time FTD begs me to order a gift basket.

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 The third category is the most insulting. These are the sales e-mails designed to incite panic. Every day, places where I haven’t shopped in years deploy urgent messages trumpeting sales that make me feel like Jay-Z, a millionaire without a care, every time I hit “delete.” Summer shorts for the whole family! Free shipping on clearance items — today only! I break out in a sweat, trying to determine which family member might require an extra-small linen romper, only to realize that the promotion code has expired. Listen, Ann Taylor Loft: We had fun for a while back in 2007, when I was childless and had money to burn on “spring essentials!” Our moment has passed, and now I just feel like a chump for giving you my e-mail address in the first place.

Don’t these places understand that they reek of desperation? They’re the online equivalent of a paramour who doesn’t know when to stop asking for a second date. Maybe it’s time that these companies adhere to a three-strikes rule. Send no more than three e-mails advertising your services. If the recipient fails to take the bait, cease all communication. Playing hard to get creates mystique.

 Of course, in five minutes I could change my e-mail address and wipe the slate clean. But I still cling to the one I’ve had since 2004. Sure, I’m reminded of dead relatives and youthful shopping sprees. But I’m also able to search for the mass e-mail I sent announcing my pregnancy and the last message my grandfather ever wrote me.

Like our pasts, maybe we just have to embrace our in-boxes. In a virtual world, at least there’s a delete button for the things we’d rather forget.

Kara Baskin is a freelance writer in Arlington. Send comments to