The Battle against Spam: According to an April Report by the Federal Trade Commission, Two-Thirds of All Spam Is Deceptive in Some Way

Article excerpt

One of every two e-mails is spam, according to a July study by Brightmail, Inc., an anti-spam software company based in San Francisco. Two years ago, spam accounted for only 8 percent of e-mail messages, the company says. AOL vice chairman Ted Leonsis testified go Congress in May that the amount of spam doubles every 4 to 6 months.

Unsolicited e-mails used to be a mild annoyance and an inconvenience. A little filtering for such tip-off words as "free," "bargain," "congratulations," and "low rates" would handle most of it, and you could delete the rest. Now, the huge volume of mailings, the nature of their content, the deceptive practices used by some of the mailers, and the debilitating viruses carried in unwanted mail absolutely require that action be taken.

Spammers Are Scammers

According go an April report by the Federal Trade Commission, two-thirds of all spam is deceptive in some way. The illusion given in subject lines that the sender somehow knows the recipient, the false return e-mail addresses, the disparity between subject lines and the actual subject of the message, and the misleading claims of business or vacation opportunities all may violate existing state or federal laws, the FTC claims.

Spammers employ software that harvests e-mail addresses from unsuspecting Internet users who post messages to newsgroups, participate in chats, or register for e-marl newsletters. They also get the addresses from company servers or purchase them from legitimate mailing-list brokers.

Some spammers have become hackers, breaking into unsecured home or institutional servers and sending spam from these unsuspecting locations. MessageLabs says that 70 percent of all spam is distributed via such hacking. An Aug. 19 report by MSNBC's Bob Sullivan quoted a former spammer who used to send out 10 million spam messages a day. He said that he had go send 500,000 an hour to earn any money. Spammers get around existing filters by deliberately misspelling keywords or tricking software that scans for spam content.

Some spammers have gone into identity theft, posing as major marketers. They use "phisher" tactics that actively steal personal data such as Social Security and credit card numbers from unsuspecting customers who fill out order forms. I recently received one such e-mail about an "expired" credit card, supposedly from PayPal, and would have taken it seriously had I not been working on this article at the time. Other legitimate marketers who have been victims of this scam are AOL, BestBuy.com, Citibank, and EarthLink.

With spam also spreading viruses, such as the recent Sobig.F that slowed the whole Internet in mid-August and even briefly shut down computers at The New York Times, antivirus manufacturers, including McAfee, NetworkAssociates, Norton, and Symantec, are incorporating spam-detection features into their products,

Battle Heats Up

Only a year ago, most discussion about the junk e-mail problem concentrated on what consumers could do to filter spam at the receiving end. Now, powerful armies of leading ISPs, corporations, state legislatures, Congress, the courts, and yes, even the Direct Marketing Association, are focusing on the senders.

According to a 2002 study by Ferris Research, the junk mail problem is costing business $8.9 billion annually and angering consumers of Internet services (http:// www.ferris.com/url/spammkt.html).

Proposed laws include requiring a message's subject to reflect its contents, creating opt-out lists, banning Internet mining for addresses, outlawing false headers, and requiring "ADV" labels on ad e-mail. About half the states now have some kind of anti-spam legislation. Rivals AOL, MSN, and Yahoo! have formed an alliance to curb spam.

Tim Muris, chairman of the Federal Trade Commission, has said that several proposed legislative solutions would be ineffective because they're not strict enough. …