There's good news and bad about what companies can do to stem the tide of spam.
I started today with spam. Lots of spam. Just like I do every morning.
Not the famous Hormel product. I'm talking, of course, about the smorgasbord of junk e-mail that cascades into my work and personal inboxes every night.
Today's menu featured all the usual suspects: Ads for beefing up body parts I don't possess. Promises that I can make $2,000 a week stuffing envelopes at home. Offers for cut-rate mortgages, herbal diet plans, nude pictures of Britney Spears. "Urgent & confidential" messages from strangers in faraway lands, pledging to share millions in inherited wealth with me if I just let them borrow my bank account.
And, of course, a half-dozen variations on this theme: "Astuart, End Spam Forever!!!!"
If only it were that easy.
Spam -- unsolicited bulk e-mail, usually selling something -- has been around almost as long as the commercial Internet. But lately it's spreading faster than a bad cold in a kindergarten classroom. "It's a plague, a disease," moans Shel Horowitz, an author, consultant and owner of FrugalMarketing.com in Northhampton, Mass. "A few months ago, I was getting 100 spams a day. Now it's up around 400."
He's certainly not alone. As Internet usage increases, spam is hitting epidemic proportions. It's the fastest-growing form of e-mail, accounting for nearly one in five of the 31 billion messages sent worldwide each day in 2002, says Robert P. Mahowald, senior analyst with IDC, a Framingham, Mass., research company. MessageLabs says the ratio had reached nearly one in three by March 2003; the British e-mail management service predicted that spam could equal or outstrip regular messages within the year.
At some companies, that's already happened. "I average between 70 and 100 pieces of junk e-mail every day," compared with a handful of legitimate messages, says Steven Clark, a public-relations executive with Andover Communications in Fort Lee, N.J. "It's gotten so bad that I now come into the office on Sunday night so I can eliminate the weekend spam."
From a business standpoint, that's spam's biggest sin: It wastes employee time -- about 5 seconds per message, by IDC's estimate. That may sound miniscule, but multiply those seconds by hundreds of messages and dozens of employees, and suddenly junk e-mail qualifies as a major productivity drain. Spam also strains networks, takes up storage space, keeps tech teams busy, and potentially spreads computer viruses. And who knows how many pieces of legitimate mail get deleted as frustrated users try to clear their inboxes? Overall, according to Ferris Research in San Francisco, spam will cost businesses more than $10 billion this year.
It's become so problematic that, in 2003 alone, Massachusetts Institute of Technology hosted a conference on the matter and the U.S. Federal Trade Commission scheduled a three-day Spam Forum. More than 25 states have enacted or are considering spam-related laws (most notably, in April 2003, Virginia made it a felony to send bulk e-mails using deceptive practices, such as using phony return e-mail addresses). However, David E. Sorkin, a professor at the John Marshall Law School in Chicago who tracks such efforts has called most legislation to date too narrow or toothless to do much good. (So far, federal anti-spam legislation has failed, due largely to free-speech concerns. Critics also say one country's laws won't matter much in a global medium. It's hard to imagine anonymous spammers in, for instance, the Philippines or Malaysia losing sleep over violating a U.S. spam ban.)
Obvious question: If everybody hates spam so much, why do would-be sellers send it? Because it's cheap. And it works. For $100 to $200, entrepreneurs can buy a CD with millions of e-mail addresses. Or they can use a "bot," or software robot, that harvests addresses from all over the Web. Or they can hang out in chat rooms and collect addresses themselves. Or they can pay a marketing service to send spam for them. In most cases, they need just a few sales to recoup their costs.
Meanwhile, there's good news and bad about what companies can do to stem the tide of spam. On the positive side, a growing range of options, including some cheap or free ones, can help reduce the flood to a trickle.
Among the choices:
The down side: Even the best options can cause "false positives" -- that is, blocking or filtering legitimate messages that, for some reason, the program interprets as spam. (That's also becoming a dandy new excuse for failing to respond to e-mail: "Sorry, I never got your message. Must have gotten stuck in my spam filter.")
Meanwhile, as fast as developers create spam-gobbling solutions, spammers figure out ways around them. In fact, I use anti-spam solutions on all my e-mail accounts, and as I've written these words, I've gotten messages pitching toner cartridges, anti-aging drugs, and yet more help designed for someone else's anatomy. For now, the only 100 % effective way to shut off spam may be shutting down the computer.
Combatting spam might be an uphill battle, but it's not hopeless. Here are a few simple tricks any users can use to prevent spam:
Use a "disposable" e-mail address in online communities. When you use Internet bulletin boards, newsgroups, or chat rooms, you're displaying your e-mail address where spammers can easily snag it. Consider a non-business account for your public online activities, perhaps from a free service such as Hotmail or Yahoo. When spam starts piling up, you can close the account and get a new one.
Use a public e-mail address that's not your name. Spammers can randomly generate lists of e-mail addresses using likely name combinations. If you throw in a random letter, a few numbers, or even an extra word, you may slow down the process. For example, creating an address such as JaneDoe@hotmail.com will attract spam from the start. But using something like Jane99Doe or JDoeChat72 may block some junk e-mail.
Skip the @ sign. Some anti-spam advocates now list their addresses online like this: "To contact me, type 'janedoe,' followed by the @ sign, followed by 'hotmail.com.' " That prevents spammers from automatically harvesting the e-mail address -- but it also prevents everyone else from e-mailing you by clicking on a link.
"The key word is 'unwanted," says Robert Mahowald, senior analyst with IDC, a Framingham, Mass.-based research firm. "Spam" refers to junk e-mail recipients didn't request and usually don't want.
On the other hand, Mahowald says, "alerts and notifications are also bulk e-mail. But they're something people want, something you opt in for."
That bulk e-mail category includes offers from companies you've given permission to contact you as well as the e-mail newsletters that many companies (including Inc.) send to subscribers upon request. Unlike spam, most alerts and notifications contain clear instructions for "opting out" of future communications.
Several leading online advertisers have banded together in an effort to publicly distinguish themselves from spammers. Working with the FTC, the Network Advertising Initiative has developed a set of principles intended to educate both businesses and consumers about the difference between spamming and legitimate e-mail marketing.
Here are online resources for learning more about preventing and filtering unwanted commercial e-mail.
About.com E-mail site
This comprehensive e-mail information site features reviews of and links to spam-filtering tools.
Search by "spam" for articles, product reviews, advice.
Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial E-mail (CAUCE)
This anti-spam activist group offers information and legislative/regulatory updates.
Electronic Privacy Information Center
Offers articles, updates, and other information on spam and other e-privacy issues.
This site, updated less frequently than others mentioned here, contains useful glossary and spam-prevention tips.
Federal Trade Commission
This federal agency's spam information site contains consumer info and news on enforcement actions.
Hormel Foods Corp.
If you're wondering why junk e-mail is called "spam" and how the Hormel folks view the matter, visit the Official SPAM Site.
Inbox Defense Task Force
Brand-new group; mission is to "shut down spammers while protecting consumers and business e-mailers." No website at press time. Phone: 212/741-8800.
Internet Privacy for Dummies
Companion site to the yellow hard-copy guide contains legislative updates, tutorials on tracking spam, and links to other resources.
MIT Spam Conference, 2003
Network Advertising Initiative
This cooperative group of marketers has developed a set of privacy principles in conjunction with the FTC.
Computer scientist-writer's site contains information, resources, recommendations, and technical advice in "A Plan for Spam."
This group supports efforts "to reduce the amount of unsolicited email that crosses private networks, while ensuring that valid e-mail reaches its destination."
Site maintained by David E. Sorkin, associate professor at the John Marshall Law School in Chicago.
Following is a partial list of companies or organizations offering tools for preventing, reducing, filtering, or blocking spam.
Focuses on eliminating the "false positives" problem - that is, preventing the filtering out of legitimate messages for an individual recipient.
Blue Squirrel Inc.
Makes Spam Sleuth software.
Offers consumer and enterprise spam-control solutions.
EasyLink Services Corp.
Offers MailWatch anti-spam solution.
Elron Software Inc.
FrontBridge Technologies Inc. (formerly Big Fish Communications)
Lyris Technologies, Inc.
Offers MailShield suite of e-mail filters for desktops, workgroups, and servers.
Offers MailWasher e-mail filtering software. Free download; small charge to register and use help desk.
E-mail security provider.
Network Associates Inc.
Includes Deersoft Inc., SpamAssassin Pro, and McAfee Security applications.
Site includes "ROI Calculator" to figure cost of spam based on salaries and lost time.
SpamEx (ClicVu Inc.)
Makes iHateSpam (for e-mail) and iHatePopups (for pop-up ads).
Norton line of security products includes spam-filtering capabilities.
Trend Micro Inc.
Tumbleweed Communications Corp.
These sites maintain lists of known spammers. However, be aware that they've created controversy among critics who say that when Internet service providers block e-mail from listed addresses, they may filter legitimate incoming messages as well.
Mail Abuse Prevention System LLC
Spam Prevention Early Warning System (SPEWS)
Lists known spammers and "spam gangs;" maintains database of spammers ejected from Internet service providers (ISPs) more than three times.
More spam blacklists at: