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27 Oct 2010
If you take a list of people for whom you don't have e-mail addresses, and find e-mail addresses for them, that's called e-pending. Different people do it in different ways. The companies with giant junk mail address databases have e-mail addresses for many of those addresses, so it's just a database lookup. Others try to guess, so if your name is John Smith and you're with the Generic Company, they'll try email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, and so forth. Regardless of how it's done, e-mail to e-pended addresses is spam. Why?
There are two basic reasons. In most cases, the list they're starting with is one where the people on it had the option of providing an e-mail address but didn't. It might be magazine subscribers, or people who ordered something from a catalog. For years, now, whenever I've done either, they always ask for an e-mail address, which sometimes I provide (a tagged one, of course) and often I don't. So the first reason that e-pending is spam, is that it's sending mail who already said they don't want e-mail from you. If they did, they would have given you their address.
The other reason is that e-pending is a privacy disaster, because the e-mail address is always just a guess. Few people have unique names, and it's easy to guess wrong. For example, my name is not all that common. Nonetheless, I am not this computing professor in Scotland, nor am I this psychology professor in Pittsburgh, nor am I this composer in England, nor am I this cartoonist in Denver, nor this doctor in Michigan, nor this doctor in Connecticut, and I am particularly not this doctor in Cambridge MA. For a decade I lived about half a mile from that last doctor, and we'd occasionally get each other's paper mail. I occasionally get e-mail intended for him, too. One of the most common uses of e-pending is to try to get people to switch from paper to e-mailed statements, and the privacy disaster from guessing the wrong person's e-mail should be obvious.
So, even though large nominally respectable companies may offer to do e-pending for you, don't.
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