5 Things Spammers Ruined While We Weren't Paying Attention
Man, you know what would be awesome? If they made a little strip of useful icons and features that we could attach to our browsers. Something unintrusive that would eliminate the need to have a separate window open every time we needed to search for pictures of Christina Hendricks' cleavage. And another when we need to post those pictures on Facebook. Maybe it could give us a way to rate and share that cleavage so that we could scientifically catalog it for further study.
Oh, wait, they have those! In fact, they've been around almost as long as Web browsers themselves. The problem is that we don't think of them as helpful tools to make browsing easier. We see them as symptoms of a disease, the number of which tells us exactly how long we'll be spending unfucking our mom's computer because she won't stop downloading goddamn screensavers.
In another article, I talked about how toolbars have become synonymous with the word "virus" because they are so commonly associated with malware, spyware and hijackers. Spammers discovered years ago that if they designed a toolbar that offered some legitimately helpful features, they could slip in some bullshit malicious code, and most people wouldn't know where the resulting vomit was coming from. Over time, of course, we figured out what was going on, and the rule of thumb became "Do not install toolbars under any circumstance."
They're just these mindless little promotional giveaways, yet I've spent days trying to undo the damage all their hidden malicious code unleashed. It'd be like if a politician handed us an ink pen with his campaign logo on the side, and as soon as we accepted the freebie, it fused itself to our fingers and forced us to write his slogans all over ourselves. Then, on voting day, it physically pulled us into the booth and forced us to vote for him. It's a level of diabolical malice normally reserved for dark wizards. But on the Internet? The average grandma can't surf for 48 hours without getting cursed by some equivalent asshole.
"Rise, my minions, and drink of the blood that gives you life!"
And the harder we try to avoid it, the more devious they get. Spammers pay legitimate programs to include their toolbar as a package deal. Or worse, trusted companies would wrap clean programs in their own installer, which itself was bundled with toolbars, Trojans and homepage hijackers. In order to ensure that you'd install it, they'd hide a check box -- already checked for your convenience -- in a sea of "Terms and Agreements" that gives them permission to shit directly into your hard drive unless you specifically unchecked that box. And once again, we had to modify the way we installed programs, carefully looking for that catch and manually unchecking each box before hitting the "Next" button.
Once we were used to that, they changed up the wording, knowing that we had become conditioned to performing the steps: 1) Uncheck toolbar boxes. 2) Click "Accept." 3) Install the new program, free of said toolbars. Check out the deceptive bullshit they came up with, paying special attention to the last lines of the instructions:
If you don't see it, don't feel bad -- many people don't. What they're saying is that if you click "Decline" (an action that traditionally cancels the installation of the whole program), they will continue with the program's regular installation without installing the toolbar. If you click "I Accept," no matter what you've unchecked above, the toolbar is still installed along with the program. They figured out our "don't install" click patterns, and rearranged the buttons to trick us into agreeing.
Can you imagine how we would jump down the throat of any real-world business that tried that shit? Imagine ordering your lunch at McDonald's, but when they got to the "fries" question, they phrased it as, "Don't you not want to not have fries with that?" Then, no matter how you answered that ridiculous triple negative, they told you, "By pulling forward to the next window, you are agreeing to buy fries" and shoved them into your car anyway, claiming, "No, you said you wanted them, so now you have to pay for them. No take-backs!" Also, the fries are poison.
And it's because of dishonest, misleading bullshit like this that we look at even reputable programs with distrust. Even the ones that aren't spam are viewed as such because they're using the same "bundle this with other software" approach that has been completely stripped of trust and legitimacy by the advertising equivalent of kidnappers.
Yeah, right! "Google?" If you're going to make up words, at least make them sound believable.
Back in ancient times when "Instant Access Internet CD Roms" littered your desk and your pager was blowin' up from some sweet Tenderoni all up on your tip, we had a simple sales mechanic that served us pretty damn well. Software makers would release their program for free, and if you liked it, you could buy it. Sometimes, it came in the form of freeware that limited functionality until you paid. Other times, the program was on a timed trial, shutting down after so many uses or days and starting back up when you paid for a license. We still have that now, but the difference is that back then (a whole 15 years ago), we could click the download link without having to put in an hour's worth of research to make sure it wasn't about to ad-fuck our computer into a coma.
"OK, just five or six more hours, and the fungal cultures should give us more info on the distributor."
Up until the early 2000s, I don't remember paying for a single program -- and no, I'm not talking about pirating that shit. Everything on my computer from antivirus to word processing to photo editing was all freeware or trial-based. But do me a favor real quick: Go on Google, search for a random malware cleaner and install one you've never heard of.
Wait, don't actually do that. For your computer, that's the equivalent of having an unprotected dick fight with General Herpes Wartcock. See, just like the toolbar example, spammers (being the soulless pig fuckers that they are) realized that people like free things. So they'd either buy out small time programs that were already gaining popularity, or they'd mimic successful programs and games like Angry Birds and plant their blatantly destructive "aggressive advertising" bombs within those.
"No, it's the same thing, man. Look how pissed off he is."
And we just kind of roll with it now, like, "Hey, it's free, of course it will give your computer cancer." Really? When is the last time you went to the grocery store and refused a free sample of something because you were afraid it might cause your limbs to stop working? Or maybe you did try it, but as soon as you went back to shopping, you were stopped every couple of seconds by a representative of every product you walked past? Following you home, screaming the name of their product in your face while you tried to drive?
Seriously, why don't people go to jail for this? It has ruined trust to the point that many of us simply avoid free samples at all costs. Until these things have been through a round of customer reviews, been scanned by anti-malware and antivirus programs, been recommended by reputable computer geeks and dragged through miles of various poking and prodding tests, our default state is to assume they're poison. And that doesn't bode well for the actual legitimate small time programmers who are just trying to get their name out there. Or for us as consumers, who would very much like to give those guys a chance ... and, yes, to get some free shit.
"I'm not opening that, Mom. I know you filled it with bees."
A certain percentage of all human communication is sales pitches -- even before people had phones, dudes would show up at their door selling snake-oil cures and horse boosters. But email is almost entirely spam -- 88 to 92 percent of all messages. For those of you who aren't good with numbers, that's almost goddamn all of them.
For this reason, I don't know anyone who has just one email address. Most people have a primary that they only give out to important contacts, and several more that they use to sign up for shit. That way, when they invariably start receiving messages about how to grow more hair and a bigger cock, who cares? You'll never log in to that Hotmail account to ever see them.
Or at the very least, you'll know to take precautions when you do.
Has there ever been a means of communication that was just totally hijacked by scammers like this, to the point that they absolutely own the medium? How many of you have a separate phone line set up to catch just telemarketers? Or a separate mailbox to catch junk mail? Or a separate home to distract door-to-door salesmen? I'm guessing not many.
Of course, we do have spam filters and junk folders to help thin it all out, but the protection itself is one of the many ways spammers have fucked over the basic function of an email. Is there a single person reading this article who hasn't heard the phrase, "You didn't get my email? Huh, I sent it yesterday. Check your junk folder." Meanwhile, the main inbox is still filled with so much broken English, it looks like some straight-up Tower of Babel shit.
And you would also be polar bears.
If you've ever been asked to fix someone's computer, you've experienced the horror of finding out that the source of their problem is the free cosmetic add-ons that they've downloaded. Screen savers. Cursors. Desktop weather programs.
The biggest problem isn't just that these things are bad news, because the problems they cause can be fixed. It's that the people who download them are of a very specific personality type that can't. One in which no matter what you tell them, they will ignore it the second you leave and redownload everything you just painstakingly uninstalled. Spammers know this, and it's why this form of malicious bullshit will most likely never die.
You're crazy -- nothing bad can come of unicorns.
It's like adults, knowing that kids love stickers, giving them away knowing that the kids will put them all over their folders and lockers. But unbeknownst to anyone else, the stickers are actually miniature stun guns. Once enough area has been covered, the adults remotely detonate them, knocking entire classes unconscious. The police come in and recognize the stickers for what they are and remove them all, warning, "Don't accept any more free stickers. That's what was hurting you." But as soon as the cops leave, they do it all over again, thinking, "Well, these won't hurt us. It'll be different this time."
Just like every other entry in this list, it wasn't always like that. Believe it or not, there was a point in time where entire websites thrived and grew based solely around the service of offering free Windows themes, no strings attached. They made their money by selling on-site ad space, and the world walked hand in hand with advertisers in a blissful symmetry unlike any the world had ever known.
And then spammers showed up and said, "Hey, is anyone gonna fuck that? Because if not, we're gonna go ahead and lube up."
But they didn't lube up. They just stuck it right in and shamelessly sodomized the entire industry right there in public until, now, every free customization download we find smells like their sweaty, floppy balls.
"Yeah. Yeah, it does. You're welcome."
None of us are naive enough to think that advertising in any medium is totally honest and without a fair amount of bullshit. We accept that because we're smart enough to pick out the exaggerations and boil down a commercial to its core. We allow it in the same way that the FDA allows a certain amount of rat shit to be in our hotdogs. In small enough quantities, it's actually pretty safe. In large enough quantities, we can pick it out or avoid it altogether. But the basics of a reasonable ad are always there: "We made this motherfucker. Give us money."
Spam advertisements are all rat shit. The problem is that even though we know to stay away from those, they're tainting everything else. When reputable websites (we'll take Weather.com, for example) sign up for an advertising network, they don't have a lot of say over what actually gets advertised. Yes, they can report and remove malicious ads, but there's not a lot they can do about blatantly lying bullshit like this:
Holy shit! You mean to tell me that two women from my town of 3,000 people discovered the secret of aging? That's incredible! Please tell me more so I can support these local women! I'll do that right after I get a free credit score check that only requires me to enter my credit card number. You know ... for "verification" purposes.
The point isn't about debunking shady ads. Most of us can do that. The point is that after a while, we can spot these things on sight, instinctively knowing to not click on them. And sometimes legitimate ads get caught in the crossfire. You can't tell me that many of you saw this thing on TV and didn't automatically assume it was a scam:
I was so sure of it, I banned my kids from even visiting the site. In fact, I didn't realize it was a legitimate game until doing research for this very article. And that's where we are now -- so conditioned to the idea that clicking a banner ad will damn us into Popup Hell that we actively tune them out. We're so afraid of hard drive vandalism that we can't get any legitimate use out of honest ads promoting real products because it's safer to assume that they're pipe bombs.
On TV, even if the ad is laced with misleading information (no, Axe Body Spray probably won't lead to instant female-on-male street rape), at least we know that the product is real. Toyota isn't selling you a cardboard car. If you order one of those stupid robe/blanket things, they're going to deliver that retarded sex-repellent monstrosity to your house. The few ads that do reek of scam are the late night commercials (Enzyte, bullshit diet scams, one-year online colleges), and at least you know when they're coming. You can separate them from the legitimate products. On the Net, you just have to assume that everything you see is out to screw you, the only exceptions being brands that you already know.
And here's the saddest part: There's nothing we can do about it. The second we change up our marketing strategy, the spammers will find a way to exploit it. Luckily for us, there's still the old adage that the strongest advertisement in the world is word of mouth. So just feel lucky that PUSSY FUKC FOR S=XY WIFE INTRACIAL ACTOIN CHEAP ROLAX!!!!!!
For more Cheese, check out Having Fun With 419 Scammers and 5 Wacky Internet Pranks That Can Get You Jail Time.