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Last Updated: Wednesday, 9 June, 2004, 09:35 GMT 10:35 UK
Rogue Mail
We're being swamped with junk mail. From big name credit card companies to the junk e-mail kings of porn. It's a multi-billion pound industry and there seems little we can do to stop it. The Money Programme investigates.

The nation's letterboxes are under siege. Last year more than 10 billion items of junk mail dropped through British letter boxes and 100 billion junk e-mails were sent to British computers.

The nation's letterboxes are under siege. We're getting more and more junk mail even though most of us say we don't like it. As if this weren't bad enough, things are about to get even worse. Junk emails or spam are now so common that they're in danger of bringing the whole system crashing down.

Mail mountain

Every family in Britain gets on average some 350 items of unsolicited mail a year. Direct mail companies insist they are doing people a favour by sending it. But research shows that about 19 out of 20 people dislike receiving junk mail - that's 95% of people surveyed.

Goldfish, a direct bank, is trying to sign people up for their branded credit card through a direct mail campaign. Their research shows an almost 10% take up, so for Goldfish, sending out millions of glossy pamphlets is an expensive but worthwhile activity. In fact, even a 0.1% take up can justify a direct mail campaign.

Levels of return

Pam Jackson of Goldfish speaks for many companies when she tells the Money Programme how important it is to use direct mail:

"Because Goldfish is a direct bank, we don't have a very big high street presence. It's very important for us to talk directly with our customers and our potential customers. So, direct mail is a very important channel for us to reach customers on a very personalised one-to-one basis."

Goldfish, like other direct marketers, claims they target their mailshots at people who are likely to want them. They have all sorts of information about our past purchasing decisions - in fact, there are some companies who specialise in collecting details about you through your lifestyle and activities.

But even if you are part of a target database, there are reasons why direct mail might be seriously unwelcome.

Personal tragedy

Sarah Neophytou and her husband Tino were expecting a second baby three years ago. Sarah agreed to receive direct mail about baby products, but tragedy struck - in March 2000 their daughter Brioni was stillborn. Despite this, Sarah still received junk mail promoting baby clothes and products.

There is a Baby Mailing Preference Service and a bereavement register so that people who don't want to receive material don't have to (for details see below).

But the onus is on consumers to opt out. As Sarah says, parents who are badly affected by the death of a baby do not want to have to worry about opting out of direct-mail services as well:

"You feel very much that you have no control. It's just another unnecessary thing to have to go through on top of everything else."


Just as with the post, the online world has its own problem with unwanted junk mail - spam.

The spam problem has become enormous - companies' computers creak under pressure from hundreds of thousands of unwanted emails, some promoting pornography, penis enlargement, breast augmentation and everything from credit to birth control pills.

Joe Barratt of AOL, an internet services provider, estimates the problem could clog up the internet altogether:

"The spam problem for AOL has gotten enormous. In the past eight weeks it's more than doubled. We're getting of the order of 2.3 billion pieces of spam that we're blocking coming in, that's mail we've actually stopped coming in. If we took that mail, and it arrived in a standard business sized envelope, and we lined it up end to end, it would go around th earth four times and reach on to the moon."

Email spammers are mostly based in the US, promote all sorts of products and services and are very wealthy on the back of their email businesses.

AOL is not the only technology company that is worried by spam. Software giant Microsoft has had enough and has announced plans to sue alleged email spammers in the UK, US and elsewhere that it believes are responsible for sending 2bn junk emails.

Legal action is all very well for software giants. But for the average computer user it's a different story.

Stopping spam

The reality is that stopping them in their tracks is going to be very difficult - you can change email accounts and you can register with mail preference services, but there's little to stop the spammers tracking you down.

Mail preference services work well for traditional post - or "snail mail" - but it's not so easy online, as anyone who's clicked the "do not spam me again" button on an unsolicited email can testify.

Doing this will merely confirm that your email address is live and will attract still further volumes of unwanted mail.

Hitting the spammers where it hurts, through legal action, may be the only way to prevent cyberspace being clogged up with unsolicited email - a spam jam.

This programme was first transmitted on Wednesday 18 June 2003

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