Image e-mails are the new face of spam

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Despite developments in permission-based marketing, the volume of spam is on the rise, complicating the playing field for legitimate bulk mailers.

Spammers have grown more sophisticated since the CAN-SPAM Act of 2003, and they often aren't as identifiable as false Nigerian officials or diet-pill sellers. Spam filter firm IronPort's research found that daily spam volumes have soared from 32 billion in October 2005 to 65.7 billion in October 2006. One fast-growing trend involves image spam.

"Image spam has risen from 5 percent of overall spam to close to 30 percent," said Dave Mayer, product manager at IronPort, San Bruno, CA. "It is much more difficult for a software program that is blocking spam to detect this."

Image spam gets past filters more easily because it contains text with a legitimate-looking subject and "from" address with an image attachment.

"Spammers have begun to add static to image-based spam, causing each of the millions of messages they send to be viewed as a new, and unrelated, message," said Charles Stiles, postmaster at AOL, Dulles, VA. "The increase in sophistication could also be seen as a shift in gears. The tactics that they use now evolve into the criminal behavior of stealing access, posting bogus Web sites and spreading viruses."

AOL uses members' spam reports as a basis to identify potential spam sources and blocks those sources accordingly. Mr. Stiles attributed the recent increase in spam volume largely to compromised PCs, which are turned into "zombie" computers. These machines are infected with software that let spammers send messages from a user's e-mail account without their knowledge.

Another trend involves the rise of phishing and farming, in which spammers try to replicate the identities of major legitimate mailers and trusted brands in hopes of attracting consumers to open the mail and share personal information.

"We're seeing the problems in the e-mail channel becoming more insidious and nefarious with phishing and farming," said Trevor Hughes, executive director at the E-mail Sender and Provider Coalition, York, ME.

"We have gotten pretty good at identifying a Viagra e-mail as spam, but today's problem is when phishers get into the inbox and appear to be a sender that the consumer has a relationship with," he said. "This causes a consumer not to know who to trust and which e-mails they can open."

Upcoming releases of new Microsoft products that track Internet service providers from where a message is sent will help, Mr. Hughes said. He also stressed the importance for the industry to follow best practices and use permission-based marketing and mailer authentication to keep the standards high.

Matt Wise, president/CEO of Q Interactive, Chicago, agreed that permission-based marketing is key to combating the current state of spam.

"CAN-SPAM is an opt-out-based concept, which is the first mistake," Mr. Wise said. "We as an industry should adopt a permission-based marketing standard. It would make it easier on the ISPs."

The key to permission-based marketing is for e-mailers to ensure they have explicit consent from consumers. Marketers should avoid brand spawning, or sending messages to consumers from one brand because they bought products from another brand owned by the same company.

Another issue facing bulk e-mailers is consumer education in the difference between "spam" and "unsubscribe."

"Instead of clicking the unsubscribe button for unwanted e-mails, many consumers just report it as spam," Mr. Hughes said. "We need to make sure that ISPs are recognizing this and work with them to educate consumers. As consumers opt in and marketers send more relevant e-mails, there is a convergence of interests between senders and ISPs."

However, the third annual holiday e-mail consumer survey from Return Path  found hope. Forty-three percent of respondents said they used the unsubscribe button sometimes, and 24 percent used it all the time.

"What this shows is that consumers really do trust the unsubscribe button, and they seem to understand this button as opposed to the 'This is spam' button," said Stephanie Miller, vice president of strategic services at Return Path, New York. "This is really good news for marketers, that consumers understand how to communicate their interests."

Expect more understanding from consumers as users grow more educated with the medium. Collaboration between ISPs and senders is likely in 2007.

"I believe 2007 will bring increased collaboration amongst major mailbox providers worldwide and greater adoption of e-mail authentication," Mr. Stiles said. "E-mail authentication will be the key component in creating a reputation system capable of appropriately attributing reputation to mailers."

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