Spam-weeding service gets outsourced

A Toronto ISP has launched a spam-filtering service that includes the option to have employees in India review a company’s sequestered spam for false positives: wrongfully blocked e-mails. But some junk e-mail experts doubt the idea will fly with Canadian enterprises.

According to Ashok Kalle, president of Pathway Communications, more than 99 per cent of spam can be filtered by combining his firm’s recently launched NetPulse appliance with this “last look” false positive-checking service, which costs $1 per mailbox per month.

“Our customers…can either choose to tag the spam and sequester it; or drop the spam into one large folder and access it themselves; or they can have it looked at by one of our employees sitting in India,” Kalle said.

The service is designed to make spam filtering “as non-intrusive and non-intensive as possible,” he added, noting that there is a minimum charge of $100 per month for the service, which makes it more appropriate for larger customers. Smaller companies with fewer mailboxes can instead opt for Pathway’s inbound/outbound mail-virus-scanning and spam-blocking services.

Besides spam-checking being “much cheaper to outsource” – compared to the approximate $1,000 to $1,500 full-time monthly salary for an in-house employee – the service also saves internal workers some sanity, Kalle said. “Someone only looking at spam all day would probably go crazy.” False-positive checking is a “no-brainer job” Pathway’s Indian inbound call centre employees can do while waiting for the phone to ring. “When there are no calls, people would just sit idle. This is better use of their time.”

Lawrence Hobbs, president of Calgary-based consulting firm Chinook Solutions, said false positives have caused huge problems for his business.

One of Chinook’s OEM partners has a Web site that generates about 15 sales leads a day from people who provide their contact information in order to download articles, and e-mails them to Chinook. These e-mails were recently flagged as spam by Chinook’s ISP, Telus, which, without informing Chinook, blocked the e-mail leads as spam because they were all coming from one domain and going to the same recipient: Hobbs.

“It took about a week to find out who blocked it and why, and when we finally got them to unblock it, the other company’s ISP transmitter blocked it…after which it took about two more weeks to resolve the issue,” Hobbs said.

In the end, Chinook decided to throw its doors wide open to spam, turning off all blockers. “From a business point of view, we have to be open to it – we need everything that comes in. I get a lot of spam…but the thing is, there’s really important business data mixed in with it.”

Rob Stonehouse, senior security consultant with Burlington, Ont.-based IT security provider WhiteHat Inc., said he expects larger companies to buy more sophisticated spam filters, such as WhiteHat’s AmikaNow! products, which allow for scanning and sequestering based on context, rather than on single words. Users can also set cut-off and quarantine levels based on how much e-mail is expected from a particular domain.

Despite Hobbs’s frustrating experiences with spam, he doesn’t think enterprises will buy into Pathway’s outsourced service.

“The principle of paying one Internet business to protect you against the flaws in a software that is supposed to protect you against what others are doing does not make business sense to me,” he said. He suspects many smaller companies will simply delete the unwanted messages themselves. Larger enterprises with 1,000 mailboxes could hire someone to check for false-positives in-house for the same monthly cost as the service, he added.

Hobbs also suspects the turnover rate for Indian spam-checkers will be quite high. “You could hire a student with a lobotomy to do this and they’d still want to quit.”