Stemming tide of unsolicited e-mail takes wits, software and perhaps laws
Like many e-mail users, Greg Netzer realized this spring that he'd received way more unwanted commercial solicitations than he had in the preceding months.
'There was an obscene amount; I'd say it started in late March,' said Netzer, communications director of the Oregon Entrepreneurs Forum. 'And every day, there was more.'
Netzer contacted EasyStreet Online Services, the forum's Internet service provider, and began beta-testing the company's new antispam systems. To his relief, the systems excelled.
'They've reduced the amount of spam I get by 90 percent,' Netzer said.
By addressing the problem in March, Netzer was either smart or lucky. Spam messages have lately bombarded local computers, causing a plethora of problems. Productivity suffers because workers must take time Ñ conservatively, five seconds per message Ñ to eliminate unwanted e-mail. And the overload on many corporate e-mail systems often is so great it can prevent desired messages from getting through.
Because the messages seem to be getting more sexually explicit, companies also could be exposed to sexual harassment lawsuits.
In Portland, a few companies are working to limit spam's damage. Moreover, the Oregon Legislature could pass a bill placing restrictions on unsolicited e-mail senders.
The bad news is that spam-related woes are likely to get worse before they get better. Even if legislators approve antispam measures, the rules probably wouldn't take effect until Jan. 1.
'There's no doubt it'll be much worse by then. It's increasing by leaps and bounds every passing day,' said Kevin Neely, a spokesman for Oregon Attorney General Hardy Myers.
The reach of spam is such that it affects even the most tech-savvy companies. Intel Oregon, for one, is hardly immune to the problem.
'I don't think there's any question that it's growing and it reduces our productivity,' said Intel Oregon spokesman Bill MacKenzie. 'We're concerned about it.'
Addresses in, spam out
'Spammers' usually collect e-mail addresses posted on Web sites, electronic bulletin boards and news groups. They also scavenge addresses from other multirecipient messages, culling from lists containing tens of millions of addresses.
Estimates of spam-related costs vary. The New York Times reported recently that costs from lost productivity because of time spent on spam could reach $87 billion yearly.
That figure doesn't include the large volume of spam that goes unreported, said Joe St. Sauvier, a network specialist with the University of Oregon. Consumers buying dicey products Ñ cable television descramblers or porn site subscriptions Ñ may be reluctant to admit they did so, perhaps inadvertently, after answering a spam message, he said.
As the economic cost of spam rises, so do the number of spammed messages. Rich Bader, EasyStreet's president, said that a year ago his company was processing 3.5 million incoming messages a month, with between 15 percent and 20 percent of them spam.
'It's now between 7 and 8 million messages a month,' he said. 'And we find we're blocking in excess of 50 percent of all incoming e-mail as spam.'
Spam's prevalence has grown for a couple of reasons. John Beaston, EasyStreet's vice president of sales, suggested that spamming tools have become easier to use.
'You can become a spammer in five minutes,' he said. 'I'm even seeing spam messages on how to become a spammer.'
Kent Lewis, president of EmailROI, a Portland-based bulk e-mail marketing group, noted that spamming is lucrative.
'Spammers can make six figures just by doing this on weekends,' he said. 'Most of them are weekend warriors; that's why you get so many of these messages on weekends.'
John Gotts, founder and chief executive officer of Lake Oswego-based antispam software maker Inboxcop.com, added that spamming is wildly inexpensive compared to other marketing modes.
'Bulk mail costs 30 cents per letter; you can buy spam disks with 10 million addresses on them for $40,' he said.
While Gotts argues for strict bans on spam, others aren't so sure. The Oregon House is considering a version of Senate Bill 910, the antispam legislation that passed the Senate last month. The bill was toned down from an early 'do not spam' list proposal because, opponents such as the American Electronics Association argued, it could feasibly prevent all e-mail from reaching the desired recipients.
The business group Associated Oregon Industries has taken the position that such sweeping laws could also spark frivolous lawsuits against marketers who send legitimate e-mail solicitations, said Harvey Mathews, the group's legislative representative for technology and education.
'Utah passed a measure like that, and two law firms have gone crazy in filing individual actions,' Mathews noted. 'There are more than 1,000 lawsuits in Utah against businesses for this.'
Oregon's attorney general had first sought the 'do not spam' list. After several compromises, the bill as now written would ban misleading subject lines and require the subject line to contain the letters 'ADV' if the recipient and sender do not have a pre-existing relationship.
'It's a step forward but not as large a step as we would have liked,' Neely said.
A federal bill co-written by U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., could add teeth to the Oregon proposal. Wyden's bill would make it illegal, period, for spammers to send unwanted e-mail.
Interceptors see opening
Gotts supports the Wyden bill. An excitable type who favors grand pronouncements and a low-maintenance work approach, he has delivered 8,100 Inboxcop.com software downloads to users in the last three weeks.
Inboxcop.com's antispam filter consists of software that intercepts and analyzes e-mail. The product explores word patterns, checks whether e-mail is sent from known spamming sources and explores other traits to see if the e-mails exceed a preset spam threshold.
The filters, Gotts said, successfully identify 98 percent of incoming spam.
Gotts said he's making the product, which costs $29.99, available to Oregonians for $4.99.
'We want to empower the people of our state to fight spam,' Gotts explained.
For its part, EasyStreet aims its Enterprise Edition Anti-Spam/Anti-Virus service at customers offering their own mail servers. Along with fighting spam, the system protects systems from viruses.
The company charges $2.50 per mailbox per month for the service, which 'scrubs,' or eliminates, 95 percent of spam before it reaches users' mailboxes.
Mail that EasyStreet's system, powered through Postini Inc., deems 'suspicious' can be either quarantined in a Web-based message center or, if the user chooses, delivered.
'Our customers said eliminating spam is far and away the service they want most,' Bader said. 'Even if a person spends just five minutes a day eliminating spam, multiply that by their salary and it's a big piece of change.'
Then there's EmailROI, which serves customers looking to distribute 'opt-in,' or solicited, messages to targeted e-mail addresses. Its client base includes Gardenburger, Wal-Mart and Tripwire.
While the company does not spam, the guilt-by-association factor nonetheless exists, Lewis conceded.
'Because we focus on business-to-business, we generally alleviate that problem because when people get our e-mails at work, they tend to know it's not spam,' Lewis said. 'We only deal with reputable companies.'