A Fresh Approach to Spam

slicing through spamIn January 2004, Bill Gates famously promised us an end to spam – those unsolicited electronic mass mailings promising everything from effortless income and herbal panaceas to free vacations and cable TV unscramblers. Of course, it’s now well over five years later and my spam filters are still working overtime.

At around the same time, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) named its “dirty dozen” spams and scams:

  • Business Opportunities – Pyramid, Multi-Level Marketing (MLM), or identity theft scams
  • Bulk E-mail – Offers to sell and resell lists of e-mail accounts
  • Chain Letters – Requests to send $1 to the five names on the list or else!
  • Work-at-Home Schemes – Envelope stuffing, pen assembly, jewellery construction
  • Health and Diet Scams – Pills, herbals, pharmacy and other drug misrepresentations
  • Effortless Income – Get-rich-quick schemes
  • Free Goods and Services – Just another MLM or Ponzi scheme
  • Investment Opportunities – Crazy rates of return, offshore accounts, precious metals, penny stocks
  • Cable/Satellite Descramblers – The kits generally don’t work, and use of them is illegal
  • Guaranteed Loans – Generally unhelpful lists of uninterested lenders
  • Credit Repair – Erases or cleans your credit usually in conjunction with a loan
  • Vacation Promotions – ‘You Won’ a free vacation in Hawaii, with only a small
    fee to claim your prize.

Today my spam box is stuffed almost full thanks to a few days out at the World Conference of Science Journalists in London, but a quick scan of the contents reveals at least a score of examples of each of the dirty dozen and a few more, while the comment spam filtered out by Akismet here on Sciencetext hoards just as many similarly ludicrous and pointless entries.

You might have the impression that it’s sexual spam that would head the dirty dozen in terms of actual spam email numbers. But, the tens of billions of spams sent every day break down approximately as follows:

  • Health 54.4%
  • Finance 24.6%
  • Pornography 5.4%
  • Direct products 4.6%
  • Gambling 0.4%
  • Scams 0.2%
  • Other 10.4%

So, approximately three quarters of spam is for health and financial products. Superficially, one might imagine that companies selling such products would be the most unscrupulous and you’d be right given the figures. The pornographers and gamblers account for very few of all those billions of spam messages, and the scammers even fewer.

Adnan Omar of Southern University at New Orleans, Khurrum Bhutta of Ohio University, and Gwénola Lepeu of Nicholls State University, Louisiana, have reviewed the state of play regarding spam. They suggest that despite the best efforts of legislators and email providers, spam “is a significant and growing problem for all web [sic] users”. It slows internet traffic and is costly and time-consuming to deal with.

I must confess that these days I am not particularly troubled by spam. I get a lot. However, Google Mail’s filtering seems to send it to the spam folder with little trouble. I only occasionally scan a couple of pages on a random basis to check for false positives (genuine messages mislabeled as spam) as they are now very rare.

I figure that if a correspondent receives no response to an important email, they will either call me or send a chaser email that would more likely not be trapped. If the email is not important, then I don’t need to see it in the first place, surely?

Bhutta and colleagues suggest that tighter legislation, an electronic postal fees for bulk mailing, and various other measures will ultimately stop spam. Well, legislation so far has had almost no impact. Electronic postal fees will be untenable and will fail miserably in the context of countries that do not participate and in the context of zombie bot-nets composed of compromised computers. While spammers, like their cousins the malware writers, will always jump one step ahead of technological solutions. Indeed, despite the take down of one of the biggest spam relays by the FTC, there are already signs of major recovery in spam rates according to Google and Security Fix reports.

Instead of trying to deal with spam using draconian measures that will only stifle the creativity of legitimate users, we simply have to learn to live with spam, like we have learned to live with household dust. Install filters, by all means, but buy a new broom too and spring clean your inbox on a regular basis and you will feel cleansed.

Research Blogging IconAdnan Omar, M. Khurrum S. Bhutta, & Gwénola Lepeu (2009). Managing spam: a global challenge Int. J. Management Practice, 3 (4), 405-416

Author: David Bradley

Freelance science journalist, author of Deceived Wisdom. Photographer and musician.