June 28, 2004

jmfuw ovorzuhle mtworo - instant degree!

The first paragraph of an email message I received today read as follows:

jmfuw. ovorzuhle mtworo. nrsjdmu yjesj umxcbd vvxccr kxszujpyv twdmhngn rjgccvx nfanfttgj dlwoikmqa vrbytalpc qbeoaqst rizxdn cigoli kferlsrtt- lagna nuuvna llsaw bkrxmexmi afimqwiqm ezyayo txuyuxkrd sxahjkfio bdndt uozxzikqw. hbgedjmsg fjdru- ypuuukoo okwxjaua uzbao xxoxd rcmtar nkjsf kvqhezojd. oacyce. kcdlvwxxo vwlpufdgl feoiwwo niikoa atlwia dwwjik uhcja jeuio ouiphubfv jwrfewd hkhqu djjuw isdjs

Have you ever had one of these? I think I know what it all meant. And I didn't even need to use my secret decoder ring (though, being a linguist, I do have one, of course, and I have a babel fish too). Let me explain.

The idea, I think, was to send enough plain text gibberish at the top of the message to delude spam filters into thinking that the message is ordinary personal plain text mail. Spam-filtering robots can't really read, of course. They're good at spotting HTML-heavy advertisements, but they don't read on to the end before they make a snap judgment: just as the rest of us sometimes do (admit it), they just browse the first bit to get the general impression. On the basis of that they form their prejudices about whether the message should be blocked.

As a statistical approximation to what English text is like, the above is pretty terrible (three letter u occurrences in a row??), but annoyingly, it worked: my spam robot was fooled (I have had some sharp words with it, and it has undergone some retraining).

Following the above appetizer, of course, was the main dish of spam that the message conveyed: an HTML-laden ad for one of those degree mills that give diplomas for money to lazy morons who then can say "I have a Master's degree!" in their job interviews so they get hired in some government job only to be found out and humiliated and fired later for having faked their credentials. Thanks, but no thanks. I happen not to have any Master's degrees, and I'd love to have one, but I don't think I'll get one this way.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at June 28, 2004 06:19 PM