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Filtering junk e-mail

February 18, 2002 

American workers, already inundated by unwanted e-mails, can plan on devoting more time to cleaning their in-boxes of the unwelcome solicitations, or spam.

According to a recent report by Forrester Research, e-mail advertising, which often arrives as spam, was expected to nearly triple in 2001. Forrester predicted companies spent $1.1 billion on mass e-mailing services last year, up from $400 million in 2000.

"I get a ton of spam, which is a big pain," said Ted Pukas, president of Magpage Internet Services Inc., an Internet provider in Yorklyn.

While some states, including Delaware, have laws that place restrictions on spam, many believe only federal action will alleviate the problem. Until then, junk e-mail is expected to grow.

According to Jupiter Media Metrix, an Internet research firm in New York, spam will be the most common type of advertising e-mail by 2006. Jupiter expects 206 billion spam messages a year by then - that's about 1,400 spam messages per user. This year, Jupiter estimates each e-mail user will receive almost 700 spam messages.

"Spam seems to be growing with the size of the Internet and the number of users. And that's very fast," said Jason Catlett, president and founder of Junkbusters Corp., a Green Brook, N.J., company dedicated to eliminating spam.

John Flaherty, a lobbyist for Common Cause in Delaware, said it takes him about 20 to 30 minutes daily to clean out his electronic mailbox. Flaherty, who uses an America Online account for work, said not all of the unwanted messages bother him.

"I do get unsolicited e-mails and some are legitimate," he said. But what upsets him are the pornography messages.

"I have no idea where this is coming from," he said. "That really irritates me."

Junk e-mail tends to clutter in-boxes of people whose e-mail addresses are exposed to the Internet the most, experts said. Workers who use e-mail addresses when purchasing items or whose electronic addresses are posted on company Web sites tend to receive more spam. That's because spammers often scan the Web, collecting e-mail addresses, Catlett said.

E-mail advertising is sometimes considered useful because it provides users with information about products or services they may want to purchase, said Betty J. Parker, an associate professor of marketing at Haworth College of Business at Western Michigan University.

"I'm a proponent of e-mail marketing," Parker said. That also includes spam.

"It takes a lot less time to hit the delete button than to open up marketing letters," she said.

But Parker agrees that spam at work can be irritating.

Laws have been drafted to prevent spammers from overwhelming Internet users.

In Delaware, it is a crime for spammers to send commercial bulk e-mails. The misdemeanor is punishable by up to one year in prison and a fine of up to $2,300. Since it was established in 1999, no one has been prosecuted, said Delaware State Prosecutor Steven Wood.

Pukas and others believe only federal laws can crack down on spam. However, federal privacy bills that contained anti-spamming legislation were shelved following the Sept. 11 attacks.

Without federal rules, some privacy advocacy groups, such as Junkbusters, try to offer solutions.

Junkbusters offers a standard letter on its Web site designed to discourage companies from sending unwanted e-mails. The letter tells solicitors they must pay $10 if they send any more e-mail to the return address. Group members said it is designed to decrease the amount of unwanted e-mail a user receives.

But some businesses, such as Newark-based Web design company Division 51, said it is better to ignore unwanted e-mails. That is because solicitors don't always know if the e-mail addresses they have collected are valid.

"We encourage everyone not to unsubscribe, because that verifies to [the sender] that they have a good account," said Patrick D. Warner, creative director for Division 51.

If a company knows the e-mail address is valid, the address will be circulated and the e-mails will continue, Warner said.

"Just delete and move on," he added.

The increasing number of unwanted solicitations has crashed corporate e-mail systems. It also has forced some Internet service providers to add staff and equipment to make sure their own systems are not overrun by e-tailers peddling everything from weight-loss pills to pornography.

"It's a tough battle," said Pukas, whose workers designed spam filters to keep the unwanted e-mail from reaching Magpage customers, which include 3,000 business accounts.

The filters sometimes prevented legitimate e-mail from reaching its destination, angering some customers. But when the filters were loosened, Pukas said, it made it easier again for unwanted e-mails to reach Magpage customers.

In a 14-hour period earlier this month, Magpage stopped more than 92,000 spams from reaching its customers. Pukas estimates about 20 percent of spam gets through to Magpage clients.

According to some industry experts' estimates, the expenses an Internet provider pays to deal with spam add about $3 a month to the average subscriber's bill.

"That sounds a little high," Pukas said. But "I would say $3 is a fair estimate."

By ESTEBAN PARRA. Gannett News Service contributed to this article

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