Originally created 02/10/02

Spam explosion



As director of information services for the Medical College of Georgia, Dwain Shaw has access to an extremely strong defense system against junk e-mail, otherwise known as spam.

That doesn't mean he can stop it, though.

"Spam still gets through, and once it's through you sometimes can't tell what's real and what's spam," he said. "Some look very businesslike. You open it up and it's 'Buy this' or 'Order that.' What we've got is the virtual version of telemarketing. How do you stop it?"

Spammers route unsolicited commercial e-mail through Internet service providers' networks, clogging servers and harassing users. The messages may be chain letters, pyramid schemes, advertisements for phone sex and pornographic Web sites or other annoying, fraudulent or inappropriate material.

Certain fire walls will block messages with key words in the subject line; others will bar messages from certain domains or addressers. But there is no foolproof way to eliminate spam from your server without possibly blocking relevant messages as well.

Spam still slips through, and more is coming. Mr. Shaw said that at this point he would classify spam as more of a "nuisance" than a serious drag on worker productivity.

But national figures from Gartner, an information technology industry tracking group, show that employees spend on average of almost an hour every day managing e-mail - and only 27 percent of it is job-relevant.

Spam jam

Americans are doing more business online. In 1990, there were only 15 million electronic mailboxes in the world, according to Brightmail, a San Francisco provider of spam-protection devices. By the end of this year, there will be 1 billion.

Spammers aren't going away; there's too much opportunity.

"There's a lot of money to be made in active e-mail accounts," said Linda Smith Munyan, Brightmail marketing manager. "It's like having a valid address or telephone number - people will pay money for it."

The mail addresses spammers send to have been culled from network traffic or databases without the consent of the recipients. You don't have to visit a pornographic Web site to receive pornographic spam. Spammers of pornography probably got your e-mail address by "scraping" it from other Internet sites.

There is little that Internet service providers can do in the way of prevention because spam is almost always sent through a fake e-mail address.

Spamming is also the least expensive form of mass-marketing. With a 28.8Kbps dial-up Internet connection and a personal computer, a spammer can send hundreds of thousands of messages an hour, according to the Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial E-mail.

"It's not like printing fliers or mailing coupons," Ms. Munyan said. "Think about what it cost to send one e-mail versus the cost to send 1 million - there's no difference, so it's practically limitless."

Future law

E-mail management company Postini Corp. of Redwood City, Calif., found that spam increased 39 percent during 2001, primarily because of rising Internet traffic. But as the amount of spam increases, so does the government's desire to address legal issues surrounding it.

The Federal Trade Commission has announced its intention to prosecute con artists who burn consumers with spam scams. It marks the first time the commission has targeted e-mail-specific fraud alone.

While help might be on the way for consumers, employers will have to wait. Companies have sued spammers over lost worker productivity, but so far unsuccessfully, said David Sorkin, a law professor and spam expert with John Marshall Law School in Chicago.

"It's kind of difficult to quantify," he said. "How can you say how much time was lost and how much damage it caused?"

Mr. Sorkin said spam levels will likely rise to "astronomical" levels unless an effective legal or technical response is developed.

On the technical side, different fire walls are being developed, and a number of advocate groups have blacklists of Web sites that cater to spammers.

On the legal side, 19 states have passed laws regulating spam, but in every case the legislation is very weak, Mr. Sorkin said.

"None lets you sue a spammer based on receiving spam," he said. "Federal legislation may come sometime soon, but none would prohibit spam in the way that junk faxes are prohibited. In fact, anything that passes is likely to be watered down."

HOW TO AVOID SPAM

Never respond to spam: Spammers say they'll take your name off the list, but what they really do is confirm that they have a live address. Then they sell your address to every other spammer on the planet.

Don't post your address on your Web site: Spammers have software that harvests e-mail addresses from the Internet. When their software finds an address, it catalogs it on a database of other e-mail addresses for sending spam.

Use a second e-mail address in news groups: News groups are a favored hunting ground of spammers, so use a different e-mail address than the one you use for talking to friends and relatives.

Know how your e-mail address will be used before you give it: Read the terms of use and privacy statements of any Web site before telling it your address. If you can't find a privacy statement, don't give your address.

Use a spam filter: While no filter is perfect, anti-spam software can help keep spam at a manageable level.

Never buy anything advertised in spam: Spammers make money by persuading people to buy a product. If no one buys, companies will quit paying spammers to advertise their products.

Source: Adapted from Spam Recycling Center information.

Reach John Bankston at (706) 823-3352 or john.banks@augustachronicle.com