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Changing the Subject: Spam Makes Friends Across Continents

It had the makings of an email disaster. An otherwise deletable piece of spam arrived, and one person after another hit "Reply All." Like a mutant virus, the message multiplied. Recipients from around the globe—Sydney, Dubai, Rio, London, Toronto—began replying with variations of "Take me off this list."

The more people replied, the more people demanded to be removed, and in increasingly hostile tones. "Remove me," one person wrote, adding ominously: "The federal police are now involved."

Then, a strange thing happened. Camaraderie broke out amid the spam. There was a drink at the Oxford and Cambridge Club in London. A woman in Idaho became interested in a charity backed by a stranger in Toronto. Dozens of people traded contact information. And just like that, what started as a petty annoyance, a blight common to our interconnected lives, became something quite different.

This particular email chain began Feb. 29, with what looked like a solicitation that slipped through the spam filter. It was written mostly in Malayalam, a language spoken in parts of India, and promoted by an online news magazine called

The first sign of trouble came three minutes later with an automatic message from Business Wire Inc., a company that distributes news releases. "Thank you for contacting Business Wire's Web Operations Group," it read. "This is an automated message in response to your request."

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News 3 years ago

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