Spam, and the art of mailbox maintenance

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We’re never amazed anymore about what clutters our electronic mailboxes daily. Only bothered.

On a typical day, Hotmail subscribers collectively receive more than 1-billion pieces of unsolicited junk e-mail. Such spam accounts for 80% of messages received - not including mail blocked by Hotmail’s first line of filters.

Though Hotmail develops various tools for evading spam, unwanted messages keep slipping through.

“And it’s increasing every day,” said Parul Shah, a product manager with Microsoft Corporation, which runs Hotmail.

“Every time Hotmail or another e-mail service provider finds a way to detect spam, the spammer immediately has a way to get around that.”

Call it an arms race: At best, the spam fighters are battling to a stalemate.

For many, spam has soured the Internet experience.

“It becomes more of a chore than a convenience,” said Sarah Sourial, a student at Washington University in St. Louis.

Mostly legal unless it makes fraudulent claims, spam kills legitimate messages, wastes our valuable time and compels service providers to buy excess equipment to cope with spam-driven mail surges.

At AT&T WorldNet a year ago, about a dozen out of every 100 messages were spam. Today, it’s closer to 20 or 25 - on top of another 200 or 300 e-mails sent to invalid accounts by spammers trying to guess addresses.

In June, anti-spam filtering company Brightmail recorded 4,8-million spam attacks - each consisting of thousands or even millions of e-mail containing the same pitch. That’s a more than fivefold increase from a year earlier. Why the increase?

For one, spammers are sending out higher volumes because filters are better at blocking messages. Spammers have also gotten smarter about harvesting e-mail addresses and evading filters.

E-mail marketing is also cheap - spammers pay less than a penny per pitch, compared with $1 for telemarketing and 75 cents for direct mail, according to the SpamCon Foundation, an anti-spam group.

Spam - named after a famous Monty Python skit on the canned meat product - has come a long way since two immigration lawyers pitched their legal services on Usenet newsgroups in 1994 in one of the Internet’s first commercial bulk mailings.

After e-mail users learned to avoid using real e-mail addresses in newsgroup postings, spammers developed dictionary attacks: Send messages to

“nick31,” “nick32,” “nick33” and so on at common domains like earthlink.net in hopes of hitting a few real accounts.

Two virgin accounts set up by The Associated Press for a test got spam within hours even though the address was never given out.

If spammers are anything, they are creative.

After service providers learned to block mail based on phrases like “Viagra” and “dlrs dlrs dlrs dlrs dlrs ,” they used programming tricks so “Viagra” would appear as that to the naked eye but as random code to a computer.

Some spam is even sent as images so filters can’t analyse their content.

Messages may also include fake removal request links to make marketers appear upstanding, and some appear to come from a friend - “John thought you might be interested in this,” they’ll typically begin.

Software and services widely available on the Internet make spam easier to send, and the arsenal is ever more finely tuned. Software robots continually scour Web pages, newsgroup postings and other sources for e-mail addresses. One site sells 1-million addresses for $59,95, major credit cards accepted. Another offers a CD with 15-million addresses for $120.

Other products automate spamming, altering e-mail message headers to hide spammers’ origin and sometimes modifying the contents of each message slightly to evade filters.

Spammers say they are simply tilting the Internet’s sales power away from big corporations that can afford fancy campaigns. They blame anti-spam vigilantes for forcing them to increasingly use underhanded techniques.

“I put them in the same category as people who scream when someone wears a fur coat or eats veal,” said spammer Michael Jay, who pitches $99 background checks.

For most everyone else, spam has taken its toll.

Some parents are banning their younger kids from e-mail. Other people change e-mail accounts so often that even friends can’t reach them. Some Internet newcomers are closing accounts after a few months.

While the first half-billion Internet users have become dependent on e-mail, “many of the next two billion may decide the Internet is not worth the trouble,” John Patrick, chairman of the industry-supported Global Internet Project, said at a recent conference on spam.

Spam could also stifle emerging technologies. Already, marketers and scammers have flooded European cell phones with text messages because addresses are tied to easily guessed phone numbers.

“A lot of people will be hesitant to use non-voice applications if they are threatened by the same kind of spam they now face in desktops,” said Raimund Trierscheid of Deutsche Telekom’s mobile unit.

Companies complain they have trouble sending bills, newsletters and other legitimate messages misclassified as spam. And marketers say pitches that their customers expressly requested get lost in the shuffle.

Jim Conway of the Direct Marketing Association said e-mail users lose the ability to distinguish a fraudulent weight loss offer from a legitimate discount for concert tickets.

Technological tools are available to block spam, but the more aggressive they are, the more legitimate mail gets discarded in the process.

In the absence of federal regulation, America Online, EarthLink and other Internet service providers have tried suing the most active spammers, winning cases but doing little to deter others.

About half the states do have laws meant to deter unsolicited mass mailings. But they have proven weak or difficult to enforce. And even a federal law could not prevent determined spammers from finding a foreign haven.

Sued by Verizon Communications for millions of dollars, spammer Alan Ralsky said he may simply move beyond the reach of US courts to where service providers value cash more than complaints.

“I think China is good place to be,” Ralsky said.

“You don’t get the same kind of grief.” - Sapa-AP

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