Slowing the Flood

A recent survey by the University of Maryland says spam costs U.S. businesses $22 billion a year in lost productivity, while a Stanford University study says Internet users waste 10 full workdays yearly dealing with spam. I don’t know about you, but I find it hard to believe that people spend 20 minutes a day deleting spam from their in-boxes. A few seconds here and there, but does that really add up to 20 minutes?

At the end of 2004, America Online said it had turned the corner in the spam war, recording 75 percent fewer complaints in November 2004 than in the same month of 2003. The average daily amount of e-mails blocked by AOL’s anti-spam filters fell from 2.4 billion in 2003 to 1.2 billion in 2004. Last year was the first time a substantial and consistent drop was recorded since AOL started tracking spam in 1996. With two active AOL e-mail accounts, I can attest to the drop-off. Banished to my spam folder are the messages for V11C0D11N and C1AALL1S, the pleas for assistance from deposed Nigerian colonels and the warnings about my nonexistent Washington Mutual accounts. Do I still want to receive all those e-mails from RedEnvelope, Omaha Steaks, Barnes & Noble and other companies that I bought from a year ago? Probably not. But it’s my fault that I haven’t opted out. It’s not spam. And I still can be swayed if the right offer comes along.

AOL attributed its decline to better filtering technology, the CAN-SPAM Act and other law enforcement actions. It also reported a shift in spam subject matter, with fewer messages peddling porn and more pushing scams. Not everyone agrees with AOL’s assessment that the problem has been fixed. There was a spate of stories in recent weeks about how ineffective the year-old CAN-SPAM Act has been. The New York Times said earlier this month that spam now accounts for 80 percent of all e-mail sent. Before the law took effect, that figure was under 60 percent. And the Spamhaus Project warns that spamming will get worse because of new malicious software that takes over a person’s computer and sends spam through the mail server of that PC’s Internet service provider. E-mail security provider Postini and others, however, expressed doubt over Spamhaus’ sky-is-falling claim.

Still, someone is buying from spam to make it worth the spammers’ time. One way to eradicate it would be to get every e-mail user to promise to never respond or buy from an offer. If we all adhered to that rule, the spammers wouldn’t stick around.

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