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Are Spam and Phishing Killing E-mail?

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Irrelevant and irritating, malicious and maddening, spam wastes our time, and phishing undermines our trust in e-mail.

But are these bad guys really threatening to make our inboxes obsolete, as some contend? Are customers on the verge of shutting down their inboxes, and never responding to another e-mail again?

As Mark Twain said, "The rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated." Despite proclamations otherwise, e-mail is far from dead. In fact, e-mail is not dying at all.

According to a recent survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, e-mail users say that, compared to a year ago, they are receiving slightly more spam. But those same users are finding it less annoying than they have in the past. What's more, fewer say that spam is undermining their trust in e-mail, eroding their e-mail use, or making life online unpleasant or annoying.

These findings echo something I've long believed. While the Internet never will be fully free of spam, it doesn't matter, because people will adapt.

People continue to drive cars despite traffic and pollution. They continue to watch TV despite commercials and mediocre programming. People have adapted to things far worse than overflowing inboxes for the sake of something they want.

After the U.S. anti-spam legislation known as CAN-SPAM went into effect in 2004, I had a chance to speak with the law's co-author, Sen. Conrad Burns, the three-term Senator from Montana.

Senator Burns told me he never envisioned that the law would rid the world of spam, but instead had designed it to help regulate commercial e-mail and make it a more effective way to do business. He believes advertising is inevitable in any communications medium, whether radio, television or e-mail.

"Listen, I watch TV," he said. "I wish I didn't have to see those ads, but advertising is just a fact of the medium." Eradicating advertising may not be possible, but legislation--such as CAN-SPAM for e-mail--is a good start toward keeping it under control.

That legislation is starting to take effect.

In March, Microsoft Corp., with the aid of famed New York attorney general Elliot Spitzer, drove spam kingpin, Scott Richter, into bankruptcy. A week later, fellow spammer Jeremy Jaynes became the first person sentenced to prison under U.S. felony spam laws. Jaynes is appealing his conviction.

But, spam is only part of the challenge facing e-mail. We must now also contend with phishing. Phishing is a form of online identity theft that uses forged e-mail to lure recipients to counterfeit websites of well-known companies and trick them into divulging personal information, such as account passwords, and credit card and social security numbers. To protect against this threat to brand and consumer trust, companies must implement policies and technologies that ensure the safety of customer information and online transactions.

And that's exactly what they're doing. In May, MasterCard International announced it shut down nearly 1,400 phishing sites and more than 750 sites suspected of selling illegal credit-card information since launching its "Stop It" program one year ago. Also in May, Bank of America announced the rollout of "SiteKey," which protects online banking customers by letting them know they are on an authorized banking website.

To battle phishing and its insidious offshoots, some 900 qualified financial institutions, online retailers, ISPs, law enforcement agencies and solution providers have joined the Anti-Phishing Working Group, an association dedicated to educating consumers and eliminating phishing and e-mail spoofing attacks.

I remember the early days of e-mail, before spammers flooded our inboxes with billions of unwanted messages, and phishers attempted to trick us into revealing sensitive personal and financial information.

But I also remember a time when people didn't have to worry about locking their doors.

Now, just as we buy sophisticated alarm systems, and refuse to let strangers in our homes, we have also learned to hesitate before giving out our e-mail address or personal information.

The Internet and e-mail are still in their infancy. As with any medium of such broad reach and scope, sociological and technological growing pains are inevitable and necessary. But if we can continue to rise to the challenges, we can succeed in making electronic communications a vibrant, safe and integral part of online life--spam and all.




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