Tom Yeagar says that he's way past caring about things like legitimate anonymous contact in email as his friends and family get buried under a storm of emails and web sites that scam the technically unsavvy. Sifting the good from the bad is too subtle for most folks---its akin to debugging. As Tom says:
As much as the tech elite likes to make fun of average Internet users -- including nontechnical corporate users -- average users don't live in straw huts and communicate with drums. Most have flush toilets, cell phones, satellite TV, and caller ID, and use them appropriately. They're buried in technology, most of which is -- as it all should be -- invisible. But computers need constant care to keep their users safe.
The answer? Tom calls for a single public standard for verifiable digital identity where folks can voluntarily register their ID. Then my Mom could simply not accept mail from folks who didn't identify themselves. Of course, there are plenty of issues around this, but that's what makes it fun!
I fear, however, that like DNSSEC, we techies aren't capable of building this system without way over-engineering it. We naturally want to think of, and protect against, every contingency and that means that it will be 10 years just getting through the standards process, let alone the implementation.
Here's my answer to the problem, much as I hate to say it. Microsoft and the Post Office have already teamed up on electronic post marks for Word docs. They ought to team up to create an open, easy way to put an inexpensive, identity proofed certificate into Outlook and Outlook express and then add the cost into the cost of Office and Windows. A big campaign could drive users to protect themselves from scam and spam by using the "free certificates" they can print with every copy of Windows and Office to create an ID and only accepting email from those who have one.
I know, you're going to hate this idea. You're going to say "Windley's gone off the deep end!" and "I'll never use Microsoft's ID program!" and "Microsoft will turn it to commercial advantage!" All of those things may be true, but the alternative, in my opinion, is much worse. At some point, legislatures, spurred on by their constituents, will undertake to solve this problem and no matter how well intentioned, you'll lake that solution even less---I promise.