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1/23/2009
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Journalism School 'Ricochets' Spam Messages

If you get a message this weekend from RJICONTACTS as part of the Missouri School of Journalism, don't reply. It's the result of a mail server snafu.

If you get a message this weekend from RJICONTACTS as part of the Missouri School of Journalism, don't reply. It's the result of a mail server snafu.About 1:30 EST Friday afternoon, I got an e-mail from the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute (RJI) highlighting its latest newsletter. The message mentions an article written by Matt Thompson entitled "10 Questions Ricochet Through Journalism Circles." Being a newsman, I'm often pitched these types of articles, though I'm not a graduate and have never attended the University of Missouri. I figured I would open it later.

However, that message was soon followed by six or seven "out of the office" e-mails from subscribers and then a curious string of e-mails thanking me for my submission to USA Today, the United Nations Public Inquiries Web site, and the Atlanta Journal Constitution. My colleague Tom Claburn and I reviewed the e-mail source and figured that the now dozen messages in my in-box were legitimately sent from the Missouri mail servers.

Curious about the issue, I called RJI for more info and comment. On my second pass, I got Jill Christie, director of communications, on the line. She confirmed that the school's mail server was acting up but emphatically denied that the servers were under some sort of bot attack or hacker takeover.

"We're not sure what the problem is, but it has been concentrated on our servers for the last couple of hours," Christie said, adding that the school is working with its network security provider, though she declined to state the vendor's name.

According to technology writer Etan Horowitz with the Orlando Sentinel and consumer technology writer Jeff Zbar, the message is an autobot/listserve that is siphoning off e-mail addresses and then sending them out randomly. Replying to the message only compounds the issue because a positive reply gives the autobot a chance to reharvest your e-mail.

"It looks like Missou's mail server got hacked or something and the bug got in there and past their firewall," Zbar said. "They have to clean out what is in there. It will take some time, but hopefully, this is a good lesson in protecting your PC."

Zbar also mentioned that he looked into trying to alert the recipients through a Reply All to the messages, but the e-mail's source did not contain a view-all recipients section.

The RJI staff said that they were considering posting alerts on the school's Facebook site as well as send out information in a blast from its Twitter account. You also can see some additional comments if you follow my Twitter.

On a side note, I hope to read that article by Matt Thompson. It looked good.

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