Spam price tag estimated at $874

A recent U.S. survey puts the cost of unsolicited commercial e-mail (spam) at US$874 per employee per year. Though the cost of spam for Canadian companies may not be precisely US$874, there is no question corporate productivity is suffering as the spam problem grows.

Andre Thibodeau, network administrator for the City of Yellowknife, said spam was becoming a bane at the northern city’s municipal offices.

E-mail is a primary form of communication between departments and workgroups at the city, so most users have their e-mail accounts set up to notify them when a message arrives. Prior to implementing a new e-mail filtering solution, city employees got annoyed when an incoming message was spam, and Thibodeau would receive complaints.

“Multiply that by four or five per day, per user,” he added.

In fact, for many companies, the driving force behind buying better spam filtering software has been to reduce complaints.

Thibodeau said he was spending too much time fielding complaints, and that city employees “were spending more than five minutes a day” deleting unwanted content. It was also more than just the annoyance of deleting unwanted messages that drove the city to installing new filtering software, he said. Some of the spam was quite offensive to the users. Not surprisingly, pornographic spam was the most bothersome.

Karel Jennings, a systems technician with the Grande Prairie Regional College in Grande Prairie, Alta., said spam effectively shut down some services. Though the college was getting about 600 unsolicited messages a day, the distribution was disproportionate, he said. Student Services was “receiving so much (spam) they couldn’t correspond with the students effectively.”

If you “clicked on the wrong thing, you’d get a porno pop-up.”

The college’s previous solution was also filtering out legitimate student e-mail far too often. Jennings was receiving an increasing number of complaints from faculty and staff.

Today Grande Prairie Regional College uses a solution from Roaring Penguin Software Inc., an Ottawa-based provider of e-mail filtering software. For the college’s 300 users it costs about $2,000 per year, with a one-time cost of $2,500 for hardware.

“It’s been great,” Jennings said of the Roaring Penguin solution. The College’s previous solution took him about an hour a day to administer, while this one takes “three minutes in the morning,” he said.

Neil Schwartzman, chair of CAUCE Canada (Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial E-mail) in Montreal, agrees that statistics on spam are hard to define.

Regardless, companies need to address the “annoyance factor” he said, especially around sexually suggestive spam. He said legal experts agree it is only a matter of time before someone sues his or her company for creating a hostile work environment for allowing such e-mail to get through.

“We don’t (yet) have the legal arm to reduce it,” Schwartzman said, noting that most spam – much of it marketing or sales-themed – does not break existing laws.

Schwartzman cited a survey that put the cost of each spam e-mail at $1. This factors in everything from clogged bandwidth and fielding user complaints, to reduced worker productivity. The US$874 estimate does not surprise him. “The employee who gets only 874 (spam e-mails) per year, that is probably a miracle.”

The US$874 is based on a worker’s salary of US$30 an hour, spending 6.5 minutes a day dealing with spam e-mail and a work year of 2080 hours. The report, from Nucleus Research Inc., is based on interviews with 117 employees from 76 U.S. companies.