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Wednesday, 4 September, 2002, 18:48 GMT 19:48 UK
Children at mercy of e-mail porn
School children using computers
Children are at risk from rogue e-mails
Junk e-mails which encourage users to access pornographic websites are becoming an increasing menace almost impossible to control, it has emerged.

An investigation by BBC One's Watchdog programme found even Internet Service Providers (ISPs) that filter out pornographic or other unwanted material are often unable to stop rogue e-mails arriving in mail boxes.

US experts suggest 90% of internet users receive unsolicited e-mails and one in 10 is pornographic.

Spam is big business because it doesn't cost much at all to send one or a million pieces of spam

Paul Lavin, internet analyst
The government's own internet task force agrees it is fighting an invisible enemy.

Some experts estimate the number of junk or spam e-mails - which are not illegal - will double over the next year in the UK.

And while a new European law limiting bulk, unwanted e-mails is expected next year, it is virtually worthless, because most are sent from outside Europe.

About five million under-16s in Britain now use the internet and should their e-mail addresses fall into the wrong hands, it is almost impossible to stop the constant flow of explicit messages.

One young internet user, 12-year-old Leanne Gilks, found herself being the unwitting victim of the sinister side of cyberspace.

'Innocent' e-mail

She uses AOL as her ISP, which has a policy of offering parental controls to restrict the websites their children visit and the e-mail addresses from which they receive mail.

Leanne Gilks
Leanne Gilks: Forced to change e-mail account
However, she was channelled towards a porn website after receiving an e-mail announcing that she had won a prize.

She said: "I received an e-mail which said I had won a Playstation 2, but I had to log on to a site to get it.

"So I called my mum over and she opened the site and it was a porn site and in the end it was so bad I've had to get a new e-mail account."

Leanne's father, a policeman, has found his job extended to his own home.

Nick Gilks said: "I don't want to have to feel like I have to access the kids e-mails before they even go on to the internet."


AOL says spam is an industry-wide issue and co-operation between ISPs, the government, law enforcement agencies and customers is crucial in order to combat it.

A spokeswoman said: "Sadly, the users of any ISP or web-based e-mail service run the risk of receiving this annoying and unwanted e-mail.

"AOL's security teams devote considerable resources to identifying the source of this material.

"We also work with law enforcement agencies and have achieved a number of successful prosecutions of criminal spam merchants.

"Much of the spam sent to AOL is blocked by us before reaching members. We are constantly examining new ways to tackle this issue."

Big business

The problem is becoming a headache for the government, which is struggling to stop the onslaught.

Internet analyst Paul Lavin said: "Spam is big business because it doesn't cost much at all to send one or a million pieces of spam.

"And if just a few per cent, 1%, or a fraction of 1% responds to this spam and they buy the product that's being offered, they've made money."

Spam detection expert Steve Linford traced Leanne's e-mail back to Canada.

He said: "You can get on to one of these lists very easily, either by signing up on an internet website or any product or service or you could just be unlucky and the spam will use software that guesses your address."

With no co-ordinated system in place to tackle this global problem, children will continue to be exposed to the worst kind of electronic junk mail.

Here are some of your views and experiences of spam e-mails:

We found our daughter's school homework site had an open door link to an American chat room. We found out it as being used for explicit conversations and had the school remove the link. Schools need to be vigilant in this area.
Paul Fry, UK

I enjoy certain adult material as much as the next consenting person. When it's on the web at least it's within my control, I can choose to look at it or not as I please. Junk e-mail is becoming a major irritation, one of my mail accounts receives 40 to 60 junk messages of varying types per day.

The account is in practical terms unusable now.
Roger T, UK

Yes, one of my accounts has been plagued with 'business offers' and invitations to visit very explicit sex sites. A partial solution is to spot patterns of persistent senders - they often use a particular word or sentence in the subject - and set up rules to suppress these e-mails.

I can't see why we can't stop such potentially corrupting targeting of the young

Peter, UK

The snag is that if anyone ever sends me a genuine e-mail with the words "Mortgage Offer" I'll never see it - it goes in the bin before it reaches me.
Andrew Wood, UK

Many of the senders of spam e-mails include an 'unsubscribe' link within the message, but I have learnt from bitter experience that making use of this facility produces much more spam mail than had I not unsubscribed. All you do by using the unsubscribe link is confirm to the sender that the e-mail account is active.
Karl Malcolm, Northern Ireland

I receive about 40-50 e-mails per day overall and of these 50-60% are spam/porn/etc e-mails. I know of a number of others both young and old that receive porn spam and have come to me to ask how to stop it. As per the BBC news webpage, there doesn't seem a reliable method of achieving this.
Colin B, UK

All spam should be banned. I have two children and do not let them use e-mail. China is trying to control the internet (bad) but we appear to do nothing (equally bad).
Peter Maciw, UK

I saw Watchdog, and I agree that spam is a problem, but I think people are taking this whole issue the wrong way - it is not the ISP's fault if you are receiving spam. There are a few simple rules to reduce spam, the most obvious is to not give your e-mail address to anyone you don't trust - or get a disposable one in addition to your real address, which can be simply abandoned if there is a problem.

If we hold the ISPs responsible for the spam their only option is to filter your e-mail before you get it, which is ineffective if it's a computer doing it, and illegal if it's a human doing it.
Ash, England

My 15-year-old daughter is constantly getting porn-related e-mails; I find this outrageous. It's bad enough receiving potentially offensive junk mail myself, but I can't see why we can't stop such potentially corrupting targeting of the young. (Yes, although my daughter is 15, she is in her own mind still a child, and I don't want some spammer to change her.)
Peter, UK

I get dozens of spam e-mails a day through my free accounts, and a smaller volume on the work account. Its irritating that the filters can't stop it completely, but I've learnt to live with it.
Nick, Scotland

I get about five porn-related e-mails a week out of approx. Fifty other e-mails to my personal e-mail account - my work e-mail successfully blocks the rubbish.

Usually I can tell by the subject line and just add them to my spam block list and delete but sometimes the title is so innocuous that I open the e-mail. Some show explicit and very graphical pictures within the email itself.

Parents are supposed to be responsible for their children, so if they don't want their children to receive unsuitable material, they should monitor what they receive

Barry Curl, England
E-mails can be traced - if only to the ISP and then they enforce more controls. Most e-mails direct you to a site - the operators of which, should face fines and prison for repeat offences. The whole sex-on-the-web industry needs more controls.
Denise McDonough, USA

My son's e-mail address is only given out to close friends and relatives, as he is only nine, so we have not had a problem with this on his own account so far.

However, we had another problem recently. Someone had set up their own homepage with a typo and their e-mail address was one character different from my son's, so he received unwanted e-mail via their link.

Fortunately their interest was harmless - china plates - so no harm was done. But it could so easily have been worse.
Aly, UK

I have just seen your program on e-mail porn. I do not understand the problem, parents are supposed to be responsible for their children, so if they don't want their children to receive unsuitable material, they should monitor what they receive. Alternatively they should not allow them access to the internet.
Barry Curl, England

As a mail administrator, it frustrates me at the number of servers out there that help spammers out. All these holes (relays to give them a name) make it too easy to fake the source of the e-mail, stopping it being tracked to the real source.

Ironically it's the success of broadband in the far east that is the current growth rate with spammers - the majority coming now from China rather than our US neighbours.
Rowland Shaw, UK

I recently connected my mother to the internet, added a few bookmarks for her and set her up with a mail account (hotmail). After a few days she received about a dozen junk messages offering the usual debt relief, credit cards, pornography. This seriously spooked her and she will now not use email. Rather sad that this junk has stopped her from enjoying the joys of cheap fast communication with her family and friends
Martin, England

See also:

20 Jun 02 | Wales
13 Apr 01 | Americas
20 Sep 00 | Science/Nature
05 Sep 00 | Asia-Pacific
09 May 00 | Americas
15 Nov 99 | Science/Nature
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