Spam Levels Hit Two-Year Low, Symantec Reports

Spam levels have been ticking upwards but are still lower than the world has seen since March 2009, Symantec says.

Spam levels may have risen in the past few weeks, but they still are lower than what users have grown accustomed to seeing, according to a new report from Symantec.

In its MessageLabs Intelligence Report (PDF) for January, Symantec revealed spam now accounts for 78.6 percent of all e-mail traffic - the lowest rate since March 2009, when it stood at 75.7 percent. In January of 2010, spam accounted for 83.9 percent of all e-mail.

"We expect the spam levels to increase in time, but this may take several weeks as the pharmaceutical gangs stabilize," said Paul Wood, MessageLabs Intelligence senior analyst with

"The bottom certainly hasn't fallen out of the spam market yet, although it is harder for the more casual spammer to be in business," he continued. "The challenges are coming not only from law enforcement and greater international cooperation, but also from rival spam gangs and criminal operations. Spammers won't send spam unless someone is prepared to pay them to do so, as we saw in December last year."

Beginning on Dec. 25 and continuing through Jan. 1, there was a notable drop-off in spam due to three botnets - Rustock, Lethic and Xarvester - halting spam operations. During this two-week period, spam volumes declined 58 percent from 80.2 billion spam e-mails per day to 33.5 billion spam e-mails each day, according to Symantec.

Pharmaceutical spam was the most popular, accounting for 59.1 percent of all spam in January. Though it still makes up the majority, that number represents a dramatic drop-off from May 2010, when it represented up to 85 percent of all spam. Some of that can be attributed to Rustock going quiet, since it was both the largest botnet in terms of size and spamming potential, Wood said.

"It would seem that pharmaceutical spam is profitable for two reasons: one) with pharmaceutical spam, it is possible to accept payment for goods online... and; two) by presenting a professional-looking Web site it is possible to dupe unsuspecting or vulnerable customers into parting with their credit card details and personal information," he said. This may then result in financial and ID fraud, and no package is received in the mail."

When Rustock was dormant on the spamming front, pharmaceutical spam represented just 10 percent of all spam. Since its return, pharmaceutical spam has shot back up, and Rustock itself now accounts for 17.5 percent of all the spam flooding inboxes. The crown as the king of spam however belongs to the Bagle botnet, which now blasts out 20 percent of all spam messages, Symantec found.

Also in January, the amount of e-mails with malware decreased slightly to one in every 364.8 e-mails (.274 percent), a drop of .03 percent from December. More than 65 percent of e-mail-borne malware contained links to malicious Web sites, a drop-off of 2.5 percent compared to last month.