Spam is here to stay

The unfortunate truth about junk mail is that it works. Companies would not be spending millions on flyers were it not for the fact people respond to them.

In the world of junk e-mail, most commonly called spam, the problems are twofold. First, the e-mails often involve illegal activity and secondly, the brunt of the cost is carried by the receiver not the sender. It is the realm of modern-day snake oil salesmen.

A large percentage are “lotions and potions, business opportunities, work at home scams and pyramids,” said Eric Wenger, an attorney in division of marketing practices with the Federal Trade Commission in Washington D.C. The FTC and Canada’s counterpart the Competition Bureau focus on the illegal side of spam (which in itself is not illegal) such as deceptive sales practices.

The problem is getting worse as spammers become more creative. They troll the Web for new e-mail addresses and erase their tracks by spoofing the return address so it becomes harder to track them down. The FTC receives about 30,000 examples of spam a day from irate Americans.

The cost

Karen Lopez, spokesperson for CAUCE Canada, the Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial Email, said she gets about 50 to 70 spam messages a day, which represents about 80 per cent of her inbox. “I really resent the fact I have to spend so much to keep this marketing out of my mailbox,” she said. “The cost of all of the spam has moved the financial burden of marketing from the marketer onto the recipient.”

Spam also has discernible IT costs. Some estimates put it at as much as $2 per month, per user. Although not all of this is IT related, a substantial amount is. The more e-mail a system is required to handle, the more hardware and bandwidth is needed to do so.

“The volume of spam has accelerated in last six months,” said Francois Lavaste, vice-president of marketing with Brightmail Inc., a filtering software vendor in San Francisco. He said much of the post 9/11 spam is directly related to those events, such as selling anthrax cures or ways to make money from the safety of your home.

Bell Canada’s Sympatico, takes the matter seriously and uses spam filtering software. “That is the most important step that we can take to reduce the irritation for our members,” said Andrew Cole, spokesperson with Bell Canada in Toronto. In just one month, February 2002, Bell’s e-mail filters detected (and deleted) close to one million spam messages.

Many corporations installing complex filtering software to reduce end user irritation, as they sift through reams of junk each morning. From a business perspective this makes sense since the more spam one receives the more likely a legitimate e-mail will be overlooked or deleted.

But there are downsides to filtering e-mail, privacy issues notwithstanding. Most e-mail filtering software uses content as the basis of the filter. If certain words or combinations of words are found in an e-mail, it is deleted. The problem is that a legitimate e-mail about “cash in the mail” could be flagged and not delivered because it triggered the content filter.

Other techniques include blocking e-mail from specific IPs or e-mail addresses, but with spoofed return addresses, potentially legitimate e-mail could get caught in the dragnet.

Brightmail uses a different approach. Its software flags actual existing spam messages not words or combinations of words. The company deploys thousands of decoy e-mail addresses and seeds them in known spammer harvest sites. The spam is retrieved and specific filters are designed for each one. This happens 24/7 with Brightmail’s “Spam Masters” constantly updating the system and pushing new filters on to corporate client’s systems on the fly.

Get used to spam

Unless the laws change dramatically it is unlikely spam will be rendered illegal, which means companies are going to have to deal with it on their own.

“It is not absolute gloom but I don’t see any solution that is anywhere near 100 per cent,” said David Ferris president of Ferris Research in San Francisco.

Even if Canada and a few other countries decide to make spam illegal (the European Community is likely to be the first), it is unlikely to change the amount of spam we receive since the e-mailers will just move offshore, and that will solve nothing.

“With the growing use of registrars and Web hosting companies that are around the world, we may run into situations where it is harder for us to get the information that we need in order to conduct our investigations,” Wenger admitted.