How to Slam Spam

By Anne Chen  |  Posted 2002-08-19 Print this article Print

Are you sick and tired of the daily ritual of wading through and deleting dozens of unsolicited e-mail messages offering the usual assortment of bogus medical cures and doubtful financial schemes? Well, youve got nothing on Max Levchin, chief technology officer at PayPal Inc.

Not only has Levchins e-mail account accumulated more than 11,000 spam messages in a special queue, but now hes also begun to get unwanted advertising on his Research In Motion Ltd. BlackBerry pager pitching fad diets, home refinancing offers, pornography—you name it. With PayPal paying RIM for the amount of bandwidth Levchin and the companys 100 other BlackBerry users consume, the issue is quickly becoming a costly nuisance.

"I receive 50 percent more spam than I do legitimate e-mail these days, and its not only annoying but expensive," said Levchin, in Mountain View, Calif. "I dont hear of people quitting because they cant handle the level of spam, but a lot of our employees complain to me that their BlackBerry pagers are filled with garbage."

Even as the volume of spam-generated user complaints rises, most IT managers—Levchin included—continue to view spam as a nuisance, rather than a mission-critical IT problem. Although the market for anti-spam products is growing at a rate of 20 percent per year, it currently measures only $88 million, according to market research company The Radicati Group Inc., in Palo Alto, Calif.

But that relaxed attitude toward fighting spam may be about to change. For one thing, spam has begun to invade wireless platforms that are paid for on a per-message rate or according to the amount of bandwidth consumed.

"Spam is not only a nuisance for productivity, but theres also the risk of having enterprise users exposed to objectionable material, and its becoming increasingly expensive to manage," said Marten Nelson, an analyst at Ferris Research Inc., in Nice, France. "Spammers are quite persistent, and youll definitely see it proliferate on mobile messaging platforms where you actually pay for bandwidth."

Meanwhile, the amount of old-fashioned e-mail spam finding its way into enterprises is reaching flood level. IT managers interviewed by eWeek report that spam levels have jumped by as much as 66 percent in the last 10 months, in many cases to as much as 25 percent of total e-mail messages received. (See how users are dealing with spam.) According to a recent survey, spam makes up the largest share of incoming e-mail messages (see spam rates), topping even job-related mail in some cases. Furthermore, a study from Executive Summary Consulting Inc. and Quris Inc. showed that 70 percent of end users said theyre receiving more e-mail this year than last year with 72 percent citing spam as the reason for the growth in volume. As a result, experts say, enterprise IT managers need to come up with solutions to slam spam now before their organizations are completely overtaken.

IT managers have an increasing number of anti-spam tools from which to choose, including managed services and filtering techniques (see three ways to fight junk e-mail). They can also use e-mail blacklists to throttle the flow of incoming spam so that servers arent suddenly flooded.

Before getting the go-ahead to invest in any of these promising anti-spam technologies, however, IT managers say they face an uphill battle obtaining upper-management support. Many line managers are rightfully concerned with the percentage of so-called false positives—or erroneously screened messages—that are produced by anti-spam tools. False positives can result in the loss of legitimate e-mail and could cost an organization a lucrative business deal.

Also contributing to reluctance to invest in spam-fighting tools is the widespread belief—even among experts—that spam can never be totally eliminated, in part because spammers constantly devise new ways to send their solicitations around the Internet. Some spammers, for example, use sophisticated techniques to disguise their identities and the origination point of their messages, two attributes that are frequently used in filtering out spam.

As a result, technology alone wont be enough to fight spam, experts say. Tools must be combined with e-mail policies such as asking end users not to opt out of spammers e-mail databases, a practice that can actually increase spam.

"There is a constant cat-and-mouse game between the spammer and the spam solutions enterprises deploy," said Nelson. "The key thing for enterprises is training end users to be aware of spam. As unsolicited commercial e-mail proliferates on different platforms, the situation will increasingly move from being regarded as a nuisance to a very expensive IT problem."

As a senior writer for eWEEK Labs, Anne writes articles pertaining to IT professionals and the best practices for technology implementation. Anne covers the deployment issues and the business drivers related to technologies including databases, wireless, security and network operating systems. Anne joined eWeek in 1999 as a writer for eWeek's eBiz Strategies section before moving over to Labs in 2001. Prior to eWeek, she covered business and technology at the San Jose Mercury News and at the Contra Costa Times.

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