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August 03, 2005

Beware of invitation emails!

For many months I have been receiving regular emails inviting me to join a service named "". All messages claimed to be from people I more or less knew of (e.g. former students of mine). After receiving one of these emails pretending to be from a friend, I queried her about this and she denied having sent or instructed to send me any of these emails.
Trying to understand, I went to their registration page and I was amazed: innocently, as part of the registration process, they ask your hotmail login and password!
I assume people that give away their details in that way think are only going to use them to import their contacts in a passive way, as done by some other web services. The site does mention in convoluted ways that they will use the imported email addresses to "invite" people in your address book to And they do mention the clause that one should obtain his contacts' "implicit consent" (they must agree but you don't need to ask them!) before proceeding… but everything is phrased carefully to avoid startling candidates. So it is probably fair to say that a large share of the people facing this situation are no way near realizing that are going to repeatedly send spam to all their friends, in their name, until they signup or explicitly opt out.
But just imagine someone knowingly allowing to send ads to his contacts.

  • this person has made the effort to read and understand the small prints and believes it's fine
  • he finds so good—even before trying it (remember, we are still in the signup process)—that he wants to tell everyone.
I am not sure how realistic this scenario is, but I carry on: is this person authorized to disclose the email addresses contained in his address book to a third party? As far as I am concerned the answer is clearly no: if I give you my email address, I grant you the right to use it, but it is a non-transmissible right. I'm obviously not trying to show here that you should blame your friends for spamming you, but simply that makes them do things they are not entitled to do anyway.
Many reputable sites allow Alice to email a link to Bob or to refer Bob to their site. Such legitimate referrals tend to have the following properties:
  • Alice knows Bob, and believes that he—individually—would be interested in the information or service referred
  • Bob's email address is manually entered in the referral form
  • the email is sent once when Alice submits the form
  • Alice's email address is not kept by the referral system, since further emails would not be legitimate
  • the message makes the circumstances in which the email was sent clear and explicit, so that Bob knows from reading the message that Alice visited a site and genuinely thought he would be interested.

In contrast,
  • operate a bulk, automated, and non-discriminative collection of email addresses
  • they keep Bob's email address and send him recurring emails on behalf of Alice, without Alice being aware of it
  • they imply Alice was involved in sending the messages
  • Bob has to take explicit action to stop receiving emails.

I wrote to to demand they cease sending me these unsolicited emails. I noted in my email that their messages were unsolicited, automated and repeated commercial emails, with no prior contact between the parties; therefore clearly qualifying as spam. I also noted that by using your acquaintance's name in the emails they imply the messages come from him/her, which is a form of identity theft. I got a childish and contemptuous reply, but I have not received any spam from them since. So complaining to them can help your particular case, but it won't make them change their practice: boast a very large customer base, which is certainly largely due to the unethical methods they employ to enroll them. If you don't like the way they are doing business, tell their prospective customers openly.

Some actions we can take to oppose and help publicize's fraudulent practices are:

  1. systematically report their mails as spam ("report spam" button) if you are using a webmail service (Yahoo!,...)
  2. post an appropriate review on Alexa and/or blog about it
  3. make sure the person who gave out your email address to is aware of the scam.

If you have also been spammed by, please post a comment below.

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