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Bccy the Spampire Slayer
Pete Resnick's long document describing the Internet Message (Email) format



Wikipedia's article about spam



Wikipedia's article about address harvesting



How to invoke the Bcc field in Thunderbird



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Forwarding, Spam and Bcc

Unsolicited, bulk, commercial email, also known as 'spam,' is no joke. But did you ever get emails with jokes and funny or patriotic pictures and stories that have been forwarded around among circles of friends? One person will get it, think it's appropriate or cute, and then forward it to everyone in his address book, and then those folks will get it and forward it likewise to all of their contacts. But forwarding an email message automatically places a copy of the header of the sent or forwarded message as a body of editable text that includes the From (person who sent it last time), To (addresses!), Sent (date) and Subject parts, so each time the message is forwarded, another header is added until everybody in the circle will have his address included in the message. Trouble is, eventually the email winds up in the inbox of an email address harvester, who thereby becomes the recipient of all those valuable, current, forwarded email addresses, and who sells compiled databases of them to spammers. Afterward, anyone who received the funny email may notice an uptick in spam received.

But there's a way to share the laugh and yet avoid the extra spam. Just delete all the addresses, including yours, from the From and To fields of the Original Message that you received. Then, instead of using the To field, put your recipients' addresses in the Bcc field of the forwarded message before hitting Send. Bcc is an abbreviation for 'Blind carbon copy.' Along with To and Cc, it's another way to address an email to multiple recipients. Your Bcc recipients will not be able to see the addresses of the other Bcc recipients, and none of your contacts' addresses will be subject to the grim harvester.

Revealing Bcc

As you prepare the email for sending, you probably won't even see the Bcc option underneath the To and Cc fields. How to reveal Bcc depends on which email client you use. To reveal it in Outlook Express, for example, (after clicking Forward or New Message) click the View menu, and then click All Headers. For Bcc instructions for other email clients, Google bcc and the name of your email program, or click the Help menu of your email program, and do a search for 'bcc.' Call John if you need help with this.

Test Bcc before you use it

Typically, when you send a message to multiple addresses using the Bcc field, each recipient gets a separately addressed message that does not include the addresses of the other recipients. However, the programmers who write the software used on Send Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP) servers, the computers owned by our Internet service providers and that process our outgoing email, have a lot of leeway in how they support Bcc, and are only required to hide the addresses from recipients entered into the To and Cc fields. In other words, it's possible that folks in the Bcc field may see all the others in that field, so you should test Bcc before you use it to see how it is implemented by your provider. The trick is to send a message to yourself, leave the To field blank, and enter your usual account address and one other account address into the Bcc field of this message. Yahoo and AOL offer free web mail service and are perfect for this purpose, and it's a good idea to have an extra email account anyway. After sending it, receive this message, preferably using web mail, and examine the header areas of both emails. There should be only one address or no addresses in the To field. If this is the case, then Bcc is being implemented in a way that can be used to fight spam as follows.

Safe forwarding procedure

When you receive an email that you want to forward to others without putting their addresses 'out there,' use this little procedure:

1. Select the email in your inbox by clicking it.

2. Click the Forward button.

3. Scroll down through the message and look for Original Message headers. Each time you find one, drag your mouse across the entire header. Be sure to highlight the entire header including the From, To, Sent (date) and Subject parts of each header. Hit the Delete key to remove the selected text, and continue scrolling to the end of the message to assure yourself that you have found all the Original Headers.

4. If you don't see it, reveal the Bcc field.

5. Add addresses to the message as you would ordinarily, except instead of adding the addresses to the To or Cc fields, put them in the Bcc field.

6. Click the Send button.

Further reading

I have included some links at the left in case you are curious about the topics discussed here. The Internet Message Format is spelled out in full in “IETF article RFC2822 on Internet Message Format Standards.” Wikipedia has some good articles about spam and address harvesting. I've also included a link to an article on how to invoke Bcc in Mozilla Thunderbird, a decent, free, universal email client.
July 30, 2012

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