It started innocently enough during a late-night online poker game. A flashing sign claimed I could get a free flat-screen TV just by clicking a little pink button.

Normally I wouldn’t fall for a come-on like that, but I was on a reputable poker site. And I was curious how anyone could make money giving away TVs. One click later I found out: Only after signing up for numerous “trial” offers, all of which required a credit-card number, could you expect your TV to be delivered. All in all, that free TV could end up being a pretty expensive proposition.

Needless to say, I didn’t offer up a credit-card number that night, or even an e-mail address. But that didn’t stop what happened next. By the following morning, the address associated with my poker playing had received offers for life insurance, eBay “secrets,” Acai berries, online dating, credit cards, and even a few things that are unmentionable in print.

It was easy enough to figure out this outpouring of spam was not a coincidence. More troubling was why such treatment isn’t covered by the CAN-SPAM Act of 2003, which was widely heralded as a cure for spamming when it was first enacted.

It turns out a lot of commercial enterprises thumb their noses at CAN-SPAM, including some Web sites that cater to engineers. MD doesn’t share reader information with third parties without permission, but a lot of sites do.

We asked a question about unsolicited e-mail on the MD LinkedIn group and got a fair amount of venting: Some people spoke about innocently signing up to download a white paper and getting an inbox full of e-mail from companies they’d never heard of. Ditto for clicking a link in an e-mail newsletter. And heaven help you if you’ve given a phone number as part of a site-registration process. Some sites seem to pass around phone numbers like baseball cards at a swap meet.

“It sounds like those organizations are really stretching the bounds of what’s sometimes called existing relationships,” says Ellen Siegel, director of Technology & Standards at the e-mail marketing firm Constant Contact Inc. and a member of the board at the Email Sender and Provider Coalition. “If you have a preexisting business relationship, there is some legal permission to send e-mail. From a best-practice viewpoint you should be setting the bar much higher. Most legitimate senders want users to actively opt in, not be passively signed up,” she says. Bad Web sites can mangle the definition of “existing relationship” to include something like what happens between two people on a bad first date. Siegel relates her experience partially filling out an online form that she then abandoned. “I got several notices asking me to come back and finish my sign up,” she says. “But if you never complete the transaction, you don’t really have any relationship with them.”

Unfortunately the main incentive for marketers to avoid abusing e-mail is ethics. Few people get prosecuted under CAN-SPAM laws. Siegel’s organization can show e-mailers what it means to have good manners. But the only real defense against bad actors seems to be reading the fine print and relegating the unwanted stuff to the spam filter.

— Leland Teschler, Editor