I know it’s tempting. Who doesn’t want to “Earn Big $$$$$$$$$ at Home”? Or take advantage of an “AMAZING ONE TIME OFFER”? And on those dark, lonely nights when it’s just you and your mouse, who wouldn’t be seduced by a subtle invitation like “Get Raunchy SeXXX Now”? But I’m hoping that we, the American Internet-using public, can summon up a little willpower here. When unsolicited commercial e-mail messages appear in our in-boxes, we simply need to hit the delete key and move on. We shouldn’t look back. We mustn’t wonder what they said. And whatever we do, we can’t click on any Web addresses that might be embedded in these so-called spam messages. Why am I so concerned? Because spam is working and it’s all our fault. It seems that some of us are responding to unsolicited commercial e-mail messages. We’re visiting spammers’ Web sites, buying spammers’ stuff and giving spammers enough money to send their little kids to private schools where they can learn to be spammers themselves someday. While Darwin might approve, I think most Net users were hoping this particular species would die out. Like other successful parasites, though, spammers have thrived on the backs of unwitting hosts in this case, online shoppers. A recent Ernst & Young survey revealed that 14 percent of online shoppers in the United States are spending money at sites they found through unsolicited commercial e-mail. That might not sound like much, since many more people said they reached online stores by clicking a bookmark or typing a familiar Web address into their browser. But any spammer worth his $35 pyramid scheme registration fee recognizes that sort of response rate represents a potential gold mine. Cheap to send While responsible e-commerce sites spend a fortune to publicize their addresses, spammers can introduce a URL to millions of potential customers by spending a few hundred bucks on Internet access fees and software. If they’re getting business from 14 percent of online shoppers this cheaply, they’re making fools of the dot-companies that paid millions for Super Bowl ads. Then again, those companies did a pretty good job making fools of themselves. The true cost of spam, of course, is imposed by spammers on the rest of the Net. Service providers must buy enough bandwidth and equipment to process unsolicited commercial e-mail whether their customers want it or not. The cost of all that gear is then passed along to Net users, one month at a time. This is true of both traditional spam as well as the so-called “permission-based” variety that has become popular among otherwise reputable vendors. If you’ve ever bought anything from an online store or registered at a site, you might have noticed a line asking if you’d mind receiving e-mail from the site. Most of the time, the box next to this line is already checked. If you don’t notice it or fail to uncheck it, you’re deemed a willing recipient of all sorts of spam, including advertisements sent from other businesses affiliated with the site. These sorts of messages with links to sites users have visited before probably account for the double-digit response rates revealed in the Ernst & Young survey. Spam blocking Digital Impact, a company that sends targeted spam for e-commerce sites, claims its campaigns are much more effective than banner advertisements. But they’re also more burdensome. Digital Impact sent out 190 million e-mail messages in the last fiscal quarter, forcing Internet service providers and, in turn, their own customers to share in the cost of their clients’ marketing campaigns. “There is explicit permission granted for getting these messages,” responded Ray Kaupp, vice president of marketing for Digital Impact. “Part of what (ISPs) provide in their service is for people to get the e-mail they want to get.” In the semantics of “permission-based” spam, people “want” anything they haven’t specifically chosen to block. This attitude makes e-commerce sites even more dangerous than sit-at-home spammers, since their familiar-sounding pitches lend credibility to a medium most consumers might otherwise avoid. So you see, it’s up to us to actively avoid the spam that defaults its way to our doorstep. If we don’t want Web sites to assume we’re spam lovers, we’ll have to uncheck those prechecked boxes and wade through multi-page privacy policies for the chance to opt out of their marketing schemes. If this sounds like too much trouble, the least we can do is resist the urge to click on the Web addresses in our spam. If we stop clicking on it, they’ll have less incentive to send it. The easiest way to do something about spam is to do nothing at all. To contact Joe Salkowski, you can e-mail him at email@example.com or write to him c/o Tribune Media Services Inc., 435 N. Michigan Ave., Suite 1400, Chicago, Ill., 60611.