Can E-Mail Be Saved from 'Spam'? (Familiar Problem, New Technology)

Article excerpt

Just about anyone who uses a computer these days knows that spam doesn't just refer to a brand of canned meat anymore. Once marketers realized they could cheaply and easily promote their products through e-mail messages, unsolicited junk e-mail--dubbed spare--started to explode. For those with e-mail accounts today, that means wading through and deleting piles of junk e-mail pitches for everything from low-interest mortgages to herbal supplements. Also spam soon may be coming in the form of text messages to a cell phone or pager near you. Both cell phones and pagers are being targeted by spammers, with unwanted junk mail accounting for almost 10% of the I billion text messages sent last December, according to a recent USA Today article. In Japan, junk mail on mobile phones is already a scourge, with some getting up to 30 spam messages a day, and paying for it, since cell phone companies typically charge for each text message received.

The avalanche of spam may be good for marketers who find it a cheap way to reach millions of potential customers. The only real cost to the marketer is the nominal one of gathering up e-mail addresses. Marketers can buy lists of about a million e-mail addresses for as little as $500.

Unlike regular mail, e-mail doesn't cost anything to send, beyond the monthly service fee for Internet access. And companies like Microsoft and Yahoo offer free e-mail accounts to anyone with access to the Web. So moderate e-mail users pay the same monthly rate as aggressive e-mail users.

But spam is becoming a decidedly costly annoyance to most e-mail users who receive it. And if recent trends continue, it will become an unbearable problem within a few years, if not months. Just since 2001, spam e-mail messages have grown from 7% of all e-mail sent to an estimated 51%, according to Brightmail, which tracks this trend. To get an idea of how massive the spamming industry has become, consider that America Online, the most popular online service provider, blocked an astonishing 2.4 billion pieces of spam in a single day.

Spam's Cost

Not surprisingly, consumers are getting increasingly agitated about spam. A USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll taken in April found that two-thirds said they get "a lot" of spam. That compares with 37% who said so three years ago. Consumers pay more in terms of time and frustration spent deleting unwanted e-mail. But they also pay in dollar terms. Spam now costs American businesses $10 billion a year--costs that eventually get translated into higher product prices. Consumers also pay about $2 a month in higher bills for Internet service. Because spam is eating up so much of the Internet traffic capacity, ISPs are forced to increase their capacity to transmit and receive data so they can handle the flood of junk e-mail without adversely affecting their customers' Internet needs.

There are other costs to consumers. Much of the spam consumers receive is deceptive. According to the Federal Trade Commission, two-thirds of the spam messages it examined in a recent sampling contained false information. The false information ranged from phony return addresses to misleading subject lines to false claims in the text of the message. Spam may contain computer viruses, which can render all or parts of a computer unworkable when unleashed. And spam can be used to gather information surreptitiously about the recipient.

Spam is also making it harder for legitimate businesses to reach their own customers, who in slogging through their daily spam pile are more likely to delete any commercial e-mail messages, even those from firms with which they have a business relationship. Worse, e-mail itself as a communication tool is being harmed. Imagine if every time you picked up the phone to make a call you first had to listen and delete dozens of commercial messages. Consumers would likely grow increasingly reluctant to use their phones at all.

Finding Solutions

While the size and scope of the spam problem is obvious, workable solutions are much harder to come by. …