More Evidence Spam Has Peaked

By Larry Seltzer  |  Posted 2005-01-30 Print this article Print

Opinion: Many large anti-spam companies report the spam percentage is flattening out. But are they really that far behind AOL, which shows rapid declines?

Several weeks ago I expressed skepticism at AOLs claims of substantial drops in spam coming into their network and delivered to their customers. I wanted to see some confirmation from other vendors. I still havent seen anyone claim drops, but Ive seen two important reports of stabilization. First, Symantecs Brightmail unit is reporting that spam though their servers has stayed at 66 or 67 percent for the last 5 months. Thats still a lot of spam, but it follows a long period of steady increase, even as the overall amount of e-mail increases. If that number is still increasing, then it means that legitimate mail is growing faster than spam for the first time in ages. Of course, as you can tell from the numbers to come here, the definition of spam is not a standard thing.

Other large vendors are showing a flattening trend. MessageLabs, the e-mail service provider, has a detailed graph showing trends in their overall spam volume. The actual data shows a monthly peak in July 2004 of 94.5 percent, but things clearly have eased off since then and the overall trend is towards a flattening at, or just above, 80 percent.

Finally, Postini last week reported that for 2004, "spam was consistently between 75 percent and 80 percent throughout the entire year." The numbers are reminiscent more of Brightmails than of AOLs, but Postini speculates the same reasoning as AOL: The advent of legislation, prosecution, private litigation and the increasing quality of much anti-spam technology are combining to discourage spammers and to decrease the amount of spam reaching actual inboxes.

Ive been asking everyone what they thought of AOLs numbers and the consensus reply goes something like this: "Gee, were not seeing anything like that, but I suppose its possible." (That sure cleared things up.) In other words, they agree with me. The only way AOLs numbers make sense is if spammers really are so scared of AOLs litigation that they really are cleansing their lists of addresses.

Some say spammers new tactics are destabilizing the Internets crucial DNS. Click here to read more. Its always been assumed that part of how spammers make their money is by trading and selling lists of addresses, and removing the AOL addresses makes the list smaller. Does it make the list less valuable because it is smaller or more valuable because it is free of the dreaded AOL addresses? I havent heard anyone claim that AOL-free lists are a hot item in the list market.

Parenthetically, some number of addresses in these lists are aliases—such as addresses—that forward to AOL addresses. Does AOL have the same standing to sue spammers whose messages reach its network through aliases as they do with spammers who send messages specifically to an address? Maybe not. If anyone knows for sure, please tell me.

Next page: Phishing on the rise.

Larry Seltzer has been writing software for and English about computers ever since—,much to his own amazement—,he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1983.

He was one of the authors of NPL and NPL-R, fourth-generation languages for microcomputers by the now-defunct DeskTop Software Corporation. (Larry is sad to find absolutely no hits on any of these +products on Google.) His work at Desktop Software included programming the UCSD p-System, a virtual machine-based operating system with portable binaries that pre-dated Java by more than 10 years.

For several years, he wrote corporate software for Mathematica Policy Research (they're still in business!) and Chase Econometrics (not so lucky) before being forcibly thrown into the consulting market. He bummed around the Philadelphia consulting and contract-programming scenes for a year or two before taking a job at NSTL (National Software Testing Labs) developing product tests and managing contract testing for the computer industry, governments and publication.

In 1991 Larry moved to Massachusetts to become Technical Director of PC Week Labs (now eWeek Labs). He moved within Ziff Davis to New York in 1994 to run testing at Windows Sources. In 1995, he became Technical Director for Internet product testing at PC Magazine and stayed there till 1998.

Since then, he has been writing for numerous other publications, including Fortune Small Business, Windows 2000 Magazine (now Windows and .NET Magazine), ZDNet and Sam Whitmore's Media Survey.

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