AOL Claims Spam Breakthrough in 2004

AOL turned the corner in its fight against spam, the company said late last month, recording more than 75 percent fewer customer spam complaints in November 2004 than in the same month of 2003.

The Internet service provider said members hit the “report spam” button 2.2 million times in November 2004, down from 11 million times in November 2003.

It is unclear whether AOL's strides in combating spam represent an industry trend or individual success. Yahoo and MSN, the other top e-mail providers, did not report year-end spam statistics.

Postini, which filters 2.4 billion e-mails weekly for customers, reported seeing spam rise in the past year. It blocked 78 percent of e-mail in 2003 compared with 88 percent in 2004. The Redwood City, CA, firm forecasts its service will block 92 percent of incoming e-mail in 2005.

MX Logic, a spam-filtering firm, reported that 97 percent of the unsolicited commercial e-mail it filtered did not comply with requirements of the CAN-SPAM Act, which took effect Jan. 1, 2004. Of the e-mail it filtered in 2004, MX Logic said 77 percent was spam.

AOL attributed its declines to more potent spam-filtering technology and enforcement actions taken on the federal level under CAN-SPAM, and under state laws such as those AOL supported in Virginia, Ohio and Maryland.

“Eliminating spam is a little like seeking to eliminate taxes and colds,” AOL spokesman Nicholas Graham said. “You can get less of them, but it is going to exist. We think we are taming the beast.”

AOL also reported shifts in spam subject matter, with fewer messages peddling porn and more pushing scams. While pornography-related spam was still prevalent, it was joined by identity theft e-mails. AOL recorded spikes in messages from phishers, whose e-mails impersonate trusted brands to obtain personal financial information.

Two of the top 10 spam subject lines in 2004 were from phishers. In 2003, no phishing-related subject lines made AOL's top 10.

Phishing emerged as a top threat to e-mail and Internet commerce in 2004. Several banks and ISPs formed the Anti-Phishing Working Group to track phishing attacks. The group reported that unique phishing attacks jumped from 176 in January to 1,518 in November.

By impersonating trusted brands such as Citibank and eBay, phishers can get a 5 percent response rate, according to the APWG.

In an encouraging sign that the spam surge is abating, AOL blocked fewer e-mails, even as spam reports declined. The average daily amount of e-mails blocked by AOL's anti-spam filters fell from about 2.4 billion in 2003 to 1.2 billion in 2004. Likewise, the amount of e-mail sent to AOL users fell from 2.1 billion in November 2003 to 1.6 billion in November 2004.

“We anticipate this is sustainable for 2005,” Graham said.

Graham said e-mail authentication technologies, including SPF and Sender ID, would play a larger role in reducing spam in 2005. AOL tested SPF for incoming e-mail during the past year. Graham said it would begin checking all inbound e-mail for SPF records in early 2005.

Brian Morrissey covers online marketing and advertising, including e-mail marketing and paid search, for DM News and To keep up with the latest developments in these areas, subscribe to our daily and weekly e-mail newsletters by visiting

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