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Consumers spend millions on e-mail diet rich in spam

December 21, 2001 

Waitress: You can't have egg bacon Spam and sausage without the Spam.

Wife: I don't like Spam!

— Monty Python's Spam skit

Robert Ney has an endless daily diet of spam.

Ney is operations manager for QuikNet, a Roseville-based Internet service provider, and 100,000 e-mails run through his system every day.

Sixty percent are junk e-mails, also known as unsolicited bulk commercial e-mails. Everyone has seen them -- unbelievable investment schemes, loan hustles, fantastic products and, of course, that "adult material."

They are also more popularly called "spam," after the Monty Python skit about a restaurant where every menu item included the processed luncheon meat. E-mail users, despite years of technological and legal efforts to stop it, also get spam with every serving of e-mail.

"Spam is a huge resource sink for our systems," says Ney.

Half of his 8,000 customers are businesses, for which spam is more than an annoyance. From small to large, businesses have become dependent on e-mail. It has become the "corporate security blanket," says the Gartner Group, which found in an April 2001 survey that workers spend an average of 49 minutes a day managing e-mail.

Employees waste much of that time dealing with spam. And businesses must also spend money upgrading their computer systems "so they can handle the load that spam represents," says Tom Geller, executive director of the SpamCon Foundation, a San Francisco-based group formed this year to look for ways to help businesses deal with junk e-mail.

Cost borne by users: A February 2001 study by the European Commission estimated that Internet subscribers worldwide are paying $9.4 billion (U.S.) a year in connection costs to receive junk e-mails.

Unlike unsolicited junk mail, phone calls or faxes, spam costs are borne almost entirely by the unwilling recipients.

"The recipient has this stuff forced at them along with the rest of their real e-mail and they must wade through it. Equally annoying is the fact that much of it is adult-related and totally inappropriate in the workplace," Ney says.

There's also what Geller calls the "more pernicious" cost of spam: preventing legitimate businesses from sending e-mail offers to customers who want them.

"Spam has already destroyed e-mail as a marketing and communications medium in many quarters," Geller says.

Without spam, companies could send out advertisements to targeted lists of people who want them and could even pay willing recipients, says Paul Hoffman, director of the Internet Mail Consortium, a Santa Cruz-based trade association. Such payments, say 10 cents a message, could give recipients free Internet access, he says.

"If you stop getting the crap you get as spam, you know that every piece of e-mail you get would have to be solicited somehow," he says.

Legal action: Efforts to stop spam have so far concentrated on legal and technological means.

California has anti-spam laws that were approved by the Legislature in 1998. They prohibit unsolicited commercial e-mail and require advertising e-mail to contain the subject label "ADV" (or "ADV:ADLT" for adult content). They require senders to provide a toll-free telephone number or return e-mail address so the recipient can ask not to receive any more, known as the "opt-out."

The laws make it a misdemeanor to send spam, and allow Internet service providers with anti-spam policies to sue spammers for damages of $50 per e-mail, up to $25,000 a day.

However, Scott Hazen Mueller, chairman of the Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial Email, a 20,000-member organization that has been fighting spam for years, says he has heard of no misdemeanor prosecutions under the state law.

"California law is useless because most spammers are not in California. For that matter, they usually are not even in this country, so suing for damages is not a likely occurrence," says Rick Wagner, owner and mail administrator for Foothill.Net, a Foresthill-based ISP.

Derek Calanchini, owner of Creative Network Solutions, a Rancho Cordova-based ISP, says he would have to hire a lawyer and spend lots of time and money to sue spammers but "it's just simply not worth it."

He did take one customer to court for spamming and got a $1,500 judgment, which has never been paid.

The state laws are still being tested, but a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision might help, says Geller of the SpamCon Foundation.

The court in late October declined to hear a challenge to a Washington state law, allowing a trial on charges filed by the state attorney general that a company sent millions of commercial e-mails with misleading subject lines, such as "Did I get the right e-mail address?" -- a common spammer tactic.

The appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court had claimed the Washington law violated the interstate commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution, preventing states from passing laws affecting business that crosses state lines.

The high court's decision not to hear the case could also affect a June 2000 ruling by San Francisco County Superior Court Judge David Garcia that part of California's law violates that commerce clause.

"I'm hoping there's going to be more action" against spammers, says Geller. "The tools are just being forged for the legal action and people just have to use them."

Many anti-spam activists, such as Geller, Mueller and Hoffman, say what's needed is a strong federal law, but they don't see passage likely in the near future.

Spam blacklists: Meantime, spam fighters are employing their own technology, although with mixed success.

Most ISPs have their own filtering programs. Ney of QuikNet and his partner wrote their own program six years ago to catch the most common forms of spam, but he says it catches only about half.

"Filters have never been very effective," says Mueller. "The spammers keep mutating to avoid the filters."

Wagner of Foothill.Net says he spends more than $2,500 a month in labor and has a $9,000 computer dedicated to the prevention of spam. He says he rejects 50,000 e-mails to his 6,000 customers daily, but estimates the same number get through.

Brian Meredith of Softcom Internet Communications, based in Galt, uses similar filters, as well as subscribing to anti-spam services that block mail from well-known sites and from Internet servers that are poorly configured and let spam from outside flow through them.

Such "blacklists" of addresses, servers and ISPs that willingly or unknowingly allow spam to be sent from or through them are compiled by companies such as Mail Abuse Prevention System, which has been operating for four years from Redwood City.

MAPS has about 1,000 clients subscribing to some combination of its three lists so they can block e-mail coming from those addresses. The fee is $200 a year for a business with fewer than 100 users, $1,500 a year for a large business and $150 for nonprofits and education-related users.

MAPS blocks anywhere from 60 percent to 86 percent of a client's junk e-mail, says Margie Arbon, MAPS systems administration manager.

A slippery target: Calanchini of Creative Network Solutions says current filters, blacklists and high-level routers can block a lot of spam, but mainly the "inexperienced spammers. You can't get rid of really technical spammers who really know what they're doing."

He says his company allows clients to change their e-mail address without charge to avoid spam deluges.

He and Geller say that servers need to be made more secure, so only authenticated e-mail can get through. "If we could eliminate spam, the Internet would be fast again," Calanchini says.

The experts all say there are several things users can do to avoid being spam targets. For example, be conservative in giving out your e-mail address, don't reply to spam to opt-out (despite the California law), because then the spammer knows it's a valid e-mail address.

Can spam ever be completely eradicated? Few think so.

"Spammers are like cockroaches: annoying, smart and impossible to eliminate completely," says Ney of QuikNet. "You can only hope to control them and keep them as much out of sight as you can."

by Jennifer Kerr. Copyright © 2001 American City Business Journals Inc.

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