AOL Watch reader Samson Randle has a special report about AOL's latest pornography-related problem....

If you've spent any of your free time lounging in AOL's chatrooms lately, you know how bad the problem is. If your children have been frequenting the rooms, chances are they know, too. Unexpected and unwanted messages from strangers, soliciting you to a lewd website with tempting phrases like "Click Here to see my pic," seem to have become a part of the AOL service itself.

The solicitations, which come through AOL's "Instant Message" service, are now accompanied by other problems. AOL users in public chat rooms are victim to mass-mailings by these same porn-pushers, peddling software such as "Virtual Girlfriend" and "Virtual Boyfriend," in addition to sexually oriented websites. And it doesn't stop there. Chatters are being barraged with "Buddy Invites," a part of AOL's Buddy system which allows you to invite other users to a chatroom or internet address.

The motivation behind the spamming is clear: profit. For once, though, AOL's greed is not to blame - the fault lies with the individuals running the major pornographic websites. In an attempt to win over new visitors and customers, many of these sites offer cash payments for referrals. It works like this: Someone places a link to the porn site on their web page; the link is coded so that when someone clicks, the porn site operator can tell where the referral came from. Each referral has a small cash value, and the owner of the web page displaying the link is paid by check, usually at the end of each month.

While there may not be any such thing as a free lunch, apparently there is such a thing as free money - at least for the spammers who are taking advantage of the "web cash" pay-for-hits system. The spammers simply set up a dummy web page which contains nothing but a link to a paying porn site, then inflict the URL to their web page upon thousands of unsuspecting AOL chatters, hoping that a few will be naive enough to click.

AOL users, as you might expect, are furious. "There's nothing you can do about it," claims Carl from Ohio. "If you complain, AOL tells you to use your preferences to block the person out, but that doesn't work until you've already gotten don't know who to block until it's too late." The Privacy Preferences, which are built in to AOL's Buddy system, allow AOL users to block others from contacting them - but this type of control is ineffective when there are hundreds of spammers roaming the system.

Other AOL members have similar complaints. One user objects to having his mailbox bombarded with porn spam while he interacts in AOL chatrooms. "I hate it when i haven't checked my mail in a couple hours and i check it and i have all this mail and all of its porno stuff." His sentiment is shared by many AOL users, who have learned to put up with or block internet spam, but are sick and tired of being spammed by fellow AOLers.

"They [AOL] either don't care or don't want to hear about it," says Matt Connor, an Ohio AOL user who receives an estimated 30 pieces of spam from AOL members each day. "[I] ...just can't begin to tell you how many pieces of email I reported to the TOS [Terms of Service] staff, and they write back saying they've taken action, but the people are still around. Some of them send me mail day after day even though I reported them on different occasions."

Email and IM abuse don't seem to be the only problems AOL isn't concerned with. Buddy Invites, undoubtedly the most popular method of spamming AOL users, aren't even reportable. There's no way to inform AOL of these offensive messages - and AOL doesn't appear to want responsibility. When asked how to report pornographic links in the Buddy Invite system, AOL's Terms of Service department replied with a form letter describing how to use Parental Controls to block Buddy Invites altogether. Maybe they missed the point.

Unfortunately, the Parental Controls suggestion may not be too far off-base. Using a screen name I'd set up with its "Member Profile" indicating it belonged to an eleven year old boy, I jumped into a lobby and within a minute's time had received four pieces of pornographic email and two Instant Messages regarding porn websites. It's obvious the spammers don't discriminate - in fact, several of them admitted to being minors themselves.

All this talk of aggravation inspired an experiment. Over a period of five days, yours truly ventured into the AOL Lobby chatrooms for one hour each day; five hours in the chatrooms. The sum total of all the solicitations?

73 Buddy Invite solicitations to pornographic websites
48 Instant Message solicitations to porn sites
62 Email solicitations to porn sites
19 Email solicitations to purchase "Virtual Girlfriend" software
Of the 48 Instant Message attacks, 18 of them were from the same perpetrator - Thorium232 - who was reported for each message. Thorium232 is still an AOL user, though sporting a full mailbox - likely due to retaliation from spam victims.

Is this problem out of hand? You decide.

Until next time: Samson Randle.

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Samson Randle may be contacted via email: samson_randle (at)