More Spam! It Ain't Dead Yet

by Lance Ulanoff - PC Magazine

In the past few weeks, I have heard reports that spam is finally dying. But to paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of its death have been greatly exaggerated.

The reality at least according to companies tracking and stopping/catching spam for other major corporations and an unscientific survey of my own readers is that spam remains a major problem for both companies and individuals. Roughly 80-85 percent of the world's e-mail is spam. Thanks to the innovative technologies provided by McAfee, MailFrontier, FrontBridge, MessageLabs, and others, we're seeing less of it on our desktops and in our in-boxes. But we need to face facts. Spam hasn't disappeared. It's just being corralled briskly into holding pens for you and your company to evaluate, ignore, and eventually delete. On the whole, however, it still costs companies millions of dollars to manage spam.

The CAN-SPAM Act has not been the panacea the U.S. government planned and has done little to stem the flow of spam onto desktops and corporate servers. More than a year after its passage, some companies, like enterprise antispam provider MX Logic, estimate that as little as

13 percent of spam mail complies with the law (by allowing recipients to opt out of getting any more spam from the same sender), down from a 16 percent compliance rate in September 2004.

Perhaps the biggest development in the war against spam occurred late last year in a Virginia courtroom, when jurors voted to convict Jeremy Jaynes and his sister Jessica DeGroot for sending bulk e-mails under false e-mail addresses. These were no small-time mom-and-pop felons who did a little black-hat business. Jaynes and DeGroot were listed as number eight on the spam watchdog group Spamhaus's list of most-wanted spam purveyors. The conviction is potentially very good news. But the ruling did have its share of oddities.

The trial took place in Virginia, but that's not where the spammers are from; it's simply where the servers they used were located. More interestingly, the jury seemed torn over the severity of DeGroot's and Jaynes's crime, recommending a nine-year prison term and just $7,500 in fines. I'd say they got that part backwards. I don't know what putting these kinds of criminals behind bars will do. Better to bar them from buying and using computers and the Internet for five to ten years.

Likewise, spam-catching costs corporations around the world millions of dollars each year in software, servers, and other resources. So, $7,500 is little more than a nod toward the spammers' real fiscal responsibilities. If Jaynes did, as prosecutors charged, make $24 million from his enterprise, he should be fined at least that much. In Germany, they're now promising hefty fines for spammers. The U.S. government should hurry up and do the same.

Still, the judicial victory should embolden prosecutors to go after other spammers on Spamhaus's list. Oddly, I have yet to hear about another spammer going to trial or jail, or even being arrested.

I guess the next logical step is for companies to go after spammers themselves with civil lawsuits. In theory, some major corporations should be suing Jaynes and DeGroot. They should work with state and federal officials to time those civil suits to hit at the same time the spammers face criminal charges. It could be a hugely effective one-two punch.

On the other hand, if those who believe spam is dying are right, we can sit back, do nothing and let CAN-SPAM take its course. With a 13 percent compliance rate, those death throes should continue for another 50 or 60 years.

Copyright 2005 Ziff Davis Inc.

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