The VOGON News Service

Edition : 3867 Thursday 14-Aug-1997 Circulation : 4970

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[Tracy Talcott, VNS Computer Desk]
[Nashua, NH, USA]

E-mail - An onslaught of e-mail misery

{The Boston Globe, Tech Edge column by John Dodge, 13-Aug-97, p. C4}

You are headed on vacation and you leave an automatic response on your e-mail: "Hi. I am on vacation until Aug. 4. Talk to you then." This simple innocent message recently triggered a digital disaster that crashed a busy e-mail server and swamped my e-mail box with 40,000 junk messages. My vacation auto-responder in Lotus Notes had locked in a deadly embrace with an Internet list server. When the dust settled, my simple whereabouts message caused about 16 hours of lost productivity and provoked one party to threaten criminal charges.

It started when Jeffrey Lant, chief executive of Cambridge-based, Worldprofit Inc., which operates electronic shopping malls, added me to his list server. The list server automatically distributes an electronic newsletter. Failing to contact me beforehand, he was unaware my auto-responder was on. While I lounged at the beach, my auto-responder send his list server my vacation whereabouts message somewhere between 60,000 and 100,000 times. The list server reflexively responded each time it did not understand my message and asked that I contact Lant's Webmaster.

Lant was frantic. He had no idea who I was or how to find me in order to put down my metastasizing auto-responder. "It was right out of H.G. Wells - the war of the auto-responders with humans standing by. It was a nightmare," Lant recounted after the episode.

Worldprofit's Webmaster, George Kosch of Incor Enterprises in Edmonton, Alberta, noted a tenfold increase in activity on Worldprofit's server. He was convinced there servers were under attack from a hacker.

"'This hacker is doing a pretty good job trying to bring my servers down,' I said to myself. 'He's pumping out one thousand e-mails an hour," said Kosch. He shot off an e-mail to me threatening to "press charges" if I did not stop sending the messages.

Lant ultimately tracked down my office in Medford and left a voice mail beseeching me to stop sending the messages. By that time, our Notes mail server and two Internet routers, which during peak usage handle 500 to 1,000 messages an hour, were choked with tens of thousands of junk e-mail messages, queued up to go over the Internet to Lant's list server.

Finally, the mystery was solved and my auto-responder was deactivated. Meanwhile, Kosch deleted 60,000 vacation messages and wrote a small program instructing his servers to automatically destroy any incoming e-mail from me. Sworn to stay off e-mail during my repose, I was unaware anything was amiss until several days later, when a PC Week information technology manager left a message at my home, ordering me not to remotely replicate my Lotus Notes e-mail. Good thing, because I had planned to read e-mail Sunday night before returning to work. Had I done that, the 40,000 or so junk messages would have taken hours to replicate to my local mailbox on my notebook PC. And PC Week's e-mail server would have been sent back into shock.

There's plenty of blame to go around for this calamity, but Lant, by his own admission, was the primary culprit, having added me to his list without permission. "It's my own stupid fault. I should have sent a note, saying 'Here's what we do. Do you want it?" Lant had seen my e-mail address in a previous Tech Edge column.

For any business large or small, there are a couple of lessons from this experience:

o Monitor your servers closely. Take note if microprocessor use exceeds the normal range. In the war of the auto-responders, the Pentium microprocessors in Kosch's Compaq servers were cooking at 20 to 30 percent utilization, 10 to 15 times higher than normal. Kosch apologized for legally threateningme, but I concur with his approach for forcefully letting a suspected hacker know you are hot on his or her trail.

o Check the intelligence of auto-forwarders and auto-responders before installing or activating them. They should be smart enough to decided whether something is not right, and if so, shut down.

"We're in an age when using auto-responders and auto-forwarders will become prevalent as people rely more on e-mail," said Ryan Wright, the PC Week computer manager charged with sleuthing the problem and reviving the downed e-mail server. Lant, Kosch, Wright and I all enjoyed a good laugh over what we all agreed was an improbable accident. However, when we were in its throes, it was no laughing matter.

John Dodge is editor of PC Week and VP of news for Ziff Davis Inc. He still welcomes e-mail at, but from humans only.

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Last updated 97/08/18