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Stamping out e-mail spam a tough job

April 9, 2002 

Stamping out e-mail spam a tough job
Junk e-mail has flooded our computers, and is now surfing toward cellphones
Rachel Ross
Technology Reporter
Dear friend and future millionaire:

You are about to receive dozens of unsolicited e-mails from mysterious companies. As the lucky recipient of these incredible offers your inbox will exceed capacity five to ten times faster.

Simply follow the instructions below and our financial dreams will become a reality. Increase our income! Slash our debt!

If you have not intentionally given us your e-mail address, please search endlessly for a way to remove yourself from our mailing list. Replying to this address will ensure you receive far more spam than you ever imagined possible, as seen on TV.

You don't need good luck to find your fortune, friend. You've got spam!

Since September, unsolicited e-mail — or spam as it's commonly known — has grown by 340 per cent. That's more than triple the rate of growth for e-mail over-all.

Spam's a cheap-and-easy a marketing medium for those with something to sell.

Governments, Internet service providers and consumer groups around the world are trying to combat the problem. There are entire call centres and corporate divisions dedicated to the eradication of spam. But for a number of reasons there's no easy solution, so the flood keeps growing.

Last week, Canada's Competition Bureau and the U.S. Federal Trade Commission announced a joint offensive against one of the biggest nuisances of digital life today.

More than 500 warning letters from the agencies were mailed (by old fashioned postal service) to North American spammers. These particular spammers were running a rather ironic scam: they were offering information on how to run a spam scheme, for a mere $5.00.

In addition, 63 legal cases are being prepared by the U.S. FTC against alleged spam scam artists.

Just the same, in the borderless, freewheeling world of Internet and e-mail, it's easy for spammers to hide from the long arm of the law. And what garners government attention isn't usually the spam itself, but an illegal scheme it's promoting.

If government can't rid us of spammers, who can?

An entire anti-spam industry is trying.

One of the largest in a growing business is San Francisco-based Brightmail Inc., established specifically to tackle spam.

Brightmail uses an ingenious method. It doesn't pre-read customers personal e-mail; it sets up decoy e-mail accounts to lure in spammers by sprinkling dummy addresses across the World Wide Web — at Web sites, chat rooms and Internet bulletin boards.

Then Brightmail sits back and waits for spammers to take the bait. Staff at the company's command centre monitor the dummy accounts around the clock. When spam has been identified, the team commands its clients' servers to block similar messages.

On a single day last week, Brightmail recorded more than 150,800 spam attacks, each one consisting of thousands of e-mails.

"This is about six times higher than what we saw on a typical day a year ago," said Francois Lavaste, Brightmail's vice-president of marketing.

Spam is increasing, among other things, because e-mail dependence has grown — advertisers see it as a way to reach more people at home and at work.

Spam has been growing so much in recent years that it's become more than just a nuisance. It's a potential problem for our communication network.

Lavaste estimates that about 20 per cent of e-mail today is spam — enough volume to potentially impact computer performance.

"It can crash your system. It can be the vehicle for viruses, and it just clogs the pipes," Lavaste said.

The pipes that Lavaste worries about are the vital cables and infrastructure that carrier data all over the Internet, from server to server, computer to computer.

Bell Sympatico worries about that kind of clogging too, though the company says it's never crashed their servers. Bell is among firms that hired Brightmail to keep spam away.

Spokesperson Don Blair said the filtering system eliminates more than 80 per cent of the spam directed at its customers. For Sympatico, cleaner in-boxes mean happier customers and fewer costly calls to the support centre.

Spam has been growing so much it's become

a potential problem

for communications networks

Heavy-duty filtering has also eased the load on Sympatico's servers, restoring capacity for legitimate e-mail and Internet traffic.

Dermont O'Caroll, senior vice-president of network engineering and operations for Rogers Communications Inc.'s Internet service, said spammers are sometimes able to get addresses from a service provider's own mail system.

Rogers monitors and protects its network from that kind of address "harvesting."

E-mail addresses can also be bought; there are CDs for sale with reams of them. Some spammers don't care how those names were gathered, so a cheap CD with unknown origins is ideal.

For businesses with an established brand name, buying and selling e-mail addresses can be a tricky affair.

The key differentiator between spam and other e-mail advertising is that spam is like an uninvited guest. The recipient is never asked whether they would like to receive e-mail from the spammer. There's also a grey area between e-mail ads and spam when consumers are duped into signing up for ads or the company changes its policy after a consumer has handed over an e-mail address. e-mail account holders were recently warned of changes in that firm's marketing practices. Yahoo in the U.S. set up a Web page for each customer's marketing preferences, describing 13 different categories for e-mail ads; the new default presumes the customer wants them all.

The company could have opted for a more consumer-friendly approach: an opt-in agreement where the registration form's default setting indicates you didn't want to be sent ads unless you checked off otherwise.

Like many companies with large internal mailing lists, Yahoo makes addresses available to outside clients for a fee.

Yahoo is currently in the middle of notifying customers of these changes, via e-mail. Customers have 60 days to change their marketing preferences — to choose to decline the advertising — before the flood begins.

(Note that marketing preferences for accounts have not been changed, but many Canadians use, the U.S. equivalent.)

The Yahoo spokesperson wouldn't say whether the company had received a lot of negative response to the changes.

The issue with spam is really one of permission: does an advertiser have your consent to send you e-mail? It's sometimes hard to tell: a crafty spammer will often lie, giving the impression your consent was given.

Spammers use all kinds of schemes to finally snare in a customer to buy the particular product they are offering, many learned from the industry's predecessor: junk mail. Some spam messages are written as though they are from a close friend; the ad is couched as a personal suggestion from someone you know.

Bob Whitelaw, president of the Canadian Council of Better Business Bureaus, warned that one of the easiest tricks to fall for is the fake unsubscribe feature. A spammer will simply guess at your e-mail address or buy a list that might be full of defunct addresses. To find out which e-mail addresses are actually active, a smart spammer offers the consumer a method to remove their name from the mailing list. Anyone who tries to unsubscribe by submitting his or her e-mail address will thus be identified as having an active account.

Whitelaw said he believes the volume of spam e-mail has gone up, ironically because consumers are getting smarter and just deleting the mail. To get the same level of customer response, spammers have to send out more spam.

Next week, the Competition Bureau and the Canadian Council of Better Business Bureaus are launching the Canadian Consumer Information Gateway, a Web site for reporting all kinds of business-related problems including spam.

Though spammers are hard to track down because they often use a fake e-mail address to send the mail, collecting data from the public about their activities is a first, crucial step.

"If we were talking 25 years ago, (the issues) would be, `What do we do to the door to door salesman?' Then it was junk mail, telemarketing and the fax machine. Now spam on your computer,'' said Whitelaw. "It's the same wine, different label."

The next generation of unwanted advertisements are probably coming to a cellular phone near you. Wireless spam received as text messages on cell phones is already a growing problem in Asia and Europe, Lavaste said.

As text messaging becomes more popular in North America he expects wireless spam will increase too.

Brightmail is already marketing their wireless anti-spam products to several telecommunications companies in Europe.

"We expect that market to pop as a business for us next year," said Lavaste.

Despite spam's bad rap, and in addition to the trouble it causes for long-suffering Hormel Foods Corp., makers of the popular luncheon meat whose brand name (spelled all-caps, S-P-A-M) has been appropriated, spam also has a lighter side.

There's a certain art to a carefully crafted spam message which advertisers try to master and observers spoof.

Internet comedy magazine solicits the best in what it calls spam poetry for their annual competition. There are two categories: freestyle, where the poem simply mocks spam, and the more difficult strictly-spam category, in which contestants can only use phrases taken from actual spam messages. You can see the winners at http://www.satirewire .com/features/poetry_spam/.

Andrew Marlatt, the self proclaimed "oligarch of SatireWire," said he started the contestant as a tribute to spam as an art form.

"There's supposed to be — theoretically — beauty in everything," he said.

Rachel Ross, Technology Reporter. Copyright © 1996-2002. Toronto Star Newspapers Limited.

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