Still Drowning in a Sea of Spam

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It's possible to forget the astonishing amount of spam that floats through the Internet, slowing and degrading the electronic system just as surely as cholesterol gums up a human body. The biggest difference, perhaps, between spam and cholesterol is that there is no "good" spam.


Questionable analogies aside, spam remains a mind-numbingly big problem. This week, MessageLabs said that spam accounted for 81.5 percent e-mail traffic last month. Filters and other tools greatly obscure the problem to end users, but the issue remains. MessageLabs broke out the findings by state: Montana was the least affected -- only 77 percent of e-mail there was spam -- while the percentage in Illinois was an astronomical 92 percent. Think of it: In Illinois, less than one in every 10 e-mail messages is legitimate.


The top nine states after Illinois were South Dakota (90.9 percent), Oregon (89.1 percent), New Hampshire (88.5 percent), Wisconsin (88.2 percent), North Carolina (88 percent), Indiana (87.6 percent), Texas (87.5 percent), Pennsylvania (87.1 percent) and Alabama (87 percent).


The situation is, if possible, even worse in business e-mails. This week, Sophos released a study revealing that 96.5 percent of business e-mail is spam. Put another, equally depressing way: One in 28 business e-mails is legitimate. The company released the top 10 spamming countries. The first half of that list: The United States (14.9 percent), Russia (7.5 percent), Turkey (6.8 percent), China/Hong Kong (5.6 percent) and Brazil (4.5 percent). The continental rundown finds Asia (35.4 percent) leading Europe (29.5 percent), North America (18.2 percent), South America (14.8 percent) and Africa (1.2 percent).


There are numbers to look at within those depressing figures. Roaring Penguin says Gmail has been victimized during the past three weeks because the bad guys broke the company's Completely Automated Public Turning Test to Tell Computers and Humans Apart (CATCHA) system. These applications ensure that a human is sending a message by requiring the sender to copy a word or series of characters before being allowed to perform a task. Breaking the Gmail system led spam to rise on its platform from 6.8 percent to 27 percent between June 13 and July 3.


This Network World piece offers a good look behind the numbers. It features the testimony of a low-level computer fraudster against Robert Soloway, a big-league spammer. The piece describes the level of professionalism Soloway achieved. The most affecting part of the story is the testimony of one victim, Thomas Miller. Miller runs a non-profit, non-denominational religious firm that counsels death-row inmates and helps the jobless and hungry in Ohio. He testified that Soloway used his account to send spam. The episode cost the charity $12,000 to $14,000 due to lost donations and expenses for setting up a new site.


The low-rent, bottom-feeding world of spammers comes across clearly in this press release from Cloudmark on the common ways in which spammers are pushing their messages. Attempts to bypass increasingly sophisticated filters include "lite brite," in which a collection of letters take the form of larger letters, unusual ways of writing e-mail addresses that can evade filters, and the use of domain names that sound like those of legitimate firms. The release spells out several more. The bottom line is that spam remains a low-down and dirty business.