"The Spam Go`s Splat"

Making Spam Go Splat
Sick of Unsolicited E-Mail, Businesses Are Fighting Back

The e-mail with the titillating subject line "funny sexy screensaver"rrived one recent afternoon in the computers of at least 100 politicians and businessmen. It claimed to be from R. James Woolsey, former director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

But Woolsey didn't send it. It was generated by a "spam" virus, the kind that hijacks someone's online account and sends out messages in the owner's name. "It was like a small version of identity theft," Woolsey, now a partner with Washington law firm Shea & Gardner, said in an interview.

All e-mail users know about spam. It's those unsolicited commercial messages that arrive in your e-mail inbox. Spam has become so ubiquitous that it has also become a verb, as in "spamming" someone, or inundating a person with unwanted e-mail. And millions of e-mail users have been caught by this latest spam twist. They've either had their online identity stolen and used to send messages, or they themselves have mistakenly opened messages that seemed to come from people they knew -- but turned out to be from, say, a sex hotline.

Electronic mailboxes were already being flooded with a growing number of electronic offers of weight-loss pills, sexual aids, travel coupons, low-interest mortgages and other solicitations. Now these fraudulent messages only add more time -- and aggravation -- to e-mail reading, prompting many consumers to reconsider their reliance on e-mail. "People will tell you e-mail has become the biggest burden in their online lives. There's a real frustration level there," said Jeffrey I. Cole, a professor at the University of California at Los Angeles who oversees a long-term study looking at the effects of the Internet on society.

Like many of those caught by this latest abuse, Woolsey blames spam for turning what used to be an enjoyable task -- reading his e-mail -- into a dreaded chore. "You can no longer believe" what you read, said Woolsey, who now scrutinizes every piece of mail with suspicion, much the way Americans approached mail delivered by the Postal Service after the anthrax attacks last fall.

Some computer users, like Indianapolis surgeon Olaf Johansen, have abandoned e-mail entirely. "You get a lot of things on e-mail that you don't need, and I find I'm more productive without it," he said.

To avoid offensive mail, many users are simply deleting large batches of messages with a single stroke without reading them, even though mail they want could also be lost.

In a desperate attempt to control the flood of spam coming through their systems, more than a few corporate computer administrators have blocked e-mail from outside the United States, since much bounced spam seems to be from foreign computers. That limits the spam, but it also limits the Internet's potential as a global communications medium.

Brightmail Inc. is one of the nation's largest anti-spam firms, hunting for the unsolicited and the unwanted through a network of decoy e-mail accounts designed to attract spam. The San Francisco company's researchers surf the Web using those e-mail addresses; they browse Web sites, read newsgroups, sign up for newsletters and do other things a regular user might do.

The result is that Brightmail has detected a 600 percent increase in spam. In April 2001, the network counted a little under 700,000 spam "attacks," in which hundreds of versions of a message are sent to e-mail accounts around the world in one shot. This past April, Brightmail counted 4.3 million such attacks.

"Spam is outpacing the growth of e-mail," said Enrique Salem, president of Brightmail, whose filters are used by Internet service providers to block millions of unsolicited messages daily.

It's not just the number of unsolicited messages that is causing alarm, but also their content. "What most people are noticing is its aggressive nature -- it's more adult-themed," with people constantly "trying to sell you something," said America Online spokesman Nicholas Graham.

And often it's hard to tell -- even after you open the message -- whether the sales pitches are from legitimate firms or individuals, or from questionable operations made to look like well-known firms or people the recipient knows, as in Woolsey's case.

Filtering the Filth

One popular way of dealing with the problem is to set up a filter or create a mailbox that accepts mail only from predesignated addresses. At Hotmail.com, for instance, about 16 percent of customers have selected "exclusive" mailboxes that accept mail only from people in each user's electronic address book, but even this approach wouldn't necessarily protect consumers from fraudulent messages sent from a friend's address.

A step beyond that is to sign up for an Internet service that forces an unknown e-mail sender to go through "handshake verification," a two-step challenge/response process based on the premise that a spamming program will not follow through. MailCircuit.com offers free e-mail accounts using this technology, and for $10 a year provides a fuller service. MailCircuit used to get one or two new customers per week; now it's averaging 30 to 40 a day, according to a spokesman.

Still other consumers are signing up for disposable e-mail addresses that can be turned off when spam becomes overwhelming. Customers of Spamex.com can pay $10 a year to obtain access to 500 active disposable addresses. You can use several at a time, close them if they become inundated with spam and hop to a new address. The 16-month-old service, which hasn't advertised itself, says registrations have increased tenfold in the past three months.

At Rockville start-up Panacea Pharmaceuticals Inc., Chief Operating Officer Kasra Ghanbari takes charge of most of the firm's e-mail. Each morning he goes through the 100 to 120 messages that arrived the previous night, and he separates legitimate business queries from spam, forwarding the "real" e-mails to the appropriate people.

As for the spam messages, "some of them are creative, and those I don't mind as much," he said. "But then there are the nasty ones -- the ones that are image-heavy or pop up windows all over your computer screen just because you opened it."

Ghanbari tackles e-mail head-on, but some people take a different approach. Eric Brynjolfsson, co-director of the Center for eBusiness at MIT, said he knows of several top executives at high-tech companies who have their secretaries sort their e-mail. "They're names you'd recognize," he said. "They don't want to deal with it."

These defensive measures may spell trouble for reputable Internet retailers, electronic publishers and other companies that rely on e-mail for conducting business. Not only do these firms find that they, too, are inundated with unwanted mail -- one electronic publisher said he recently received 172 e-mails overnight, and all but three were "junk" -- but they also have found themselves wrongly accused of generating spam.

Special filters set up by Internet service providers such as Yahoo and Hotmail, for example, can detect bulk e-mailings. What the filters cannot do is tell whether the e-mails are junk messages or a bulk delivery of, say, this week's online newsletter requested, and maybe even paid for, by its readers. Many of these are rerouted to users' special "junk mail" folders, where they then may be overlooked by the account-holders.

Even more drastic, sometimes these messages are completely blocked by an ISP and never arrive in the intended inbox. Under normal circumstances, that could be a good thing. But last December, Dulles-based America Online, the world's largest online service, bounced back early-admission notices from Harvard University that the filter had deemed "junk."

Yamamoto, who runs a company that uses a Web server in Silicon Valley,experienced a similar problem. She was recently awakened in the middle of the night by a client in Japan who was furious about not being able to send some page proofs to her. It turned out that all Asian e-mail was being rejected by the company hosting Yamamoto's Web site because of a flood of spam from the region. It took 10 hours to get Yamamoto's account back online.

"It was like getting a death sentence without a trial," said Yamamoto, most of whose business comes from Asia.

In Woolsey's case, the spam filters did an even more disturbing thing. A number of his associates reported that the fraudulent message that bore his name got through their filters -- but then the filters blocked the warning message Woolsey subsequently sent out because it had the word "porn" in it. "It was truly ironic," Woolsey said.

Even legitimate commercial messages are increasingly lost in the crowd -- prompting response rates to drop dramatically. People who send newsletters by e-mail, for example, say mailings that used to generate 10 responses now garner only one or two.

"The problem is spammers are using a lot of the same terminology as legitimate firms: 'You stopped at our Web site,' 'You signed up for our newsletter,' 'Here's the information you requested.' So all the e-mail sounds alike and consumers don't know who's telling the truth and who's not," said Paul Myers, editor of TalkBiz.com, an e-newsletter on small business with 41,000 subscribers. "Consumers get so disgusted they just start deleting everything that's not from Mom or their close friends."

Myers said he has been able to survive the spam epidemic by carefully crafting a newsletter that can be distinguished from other incoming mail. But, he added, he knows of dozens of small publishers who have had to shut down. In fact, he recently purchased two firms -- each had more than 25,000 subscribers -- at a "fire-sale price" because their revenue couldn't keep up with the cost of maintaining their e-mail lists.

The pitfalls of spam are haunting even traditional firms that have turned to e-mail as a marketing tool. Last month, Consumer Reports used an independent firm to send out electronic promotions. The e-mail was supposed to go to Consumer Reports online subscribers, but it went to others as well. "We were looking for ways to drum up business, and e-mail is less costly than traditional mail," explained spokeswoman Linda Wagner. But within a few days, the magazine received a handful of "Is this really you?" queries.

"When you try new things you learn about things you didn't anticipate," Wagner said.

Still, Amazon.com and shoe manufacturer Steve Madden, which send out what Madden calls "e-mail blasts" to customers who sign up for them, say the spam glut hasn't lowered the effectiveness of their campaigns. Amazon spokeswoman Patty Smith says she is still optimistic about e-mail marketing.

"We can be much more targeted" with e-mail than with other types of advertising, she said. Still, the company recently announced that it would begin supplementing its marketing strategy with television ads.

The low cost of e-mail is one of the biggest reasons for the rapid rise of spam. "It's practically free," only a fraction of a cent -- far less than direct-mail promotions sent through the post office, said Brightmail's Salem. The sluggish economy may have also spurred some of spam's rapid growth because traditionally, that's when get-rich-quick deals and cure-your-credit programs proliferate.

It technology is probably the chief culprit. New software programs can scan the World Wide Web's vast expanse and extract e-mail addresses from employee directories, sports team rosters and other lists. They also can create lists of possible e-mail addresses by automatically adding @yahoo.com, @msn.com or @aol.com to every word in a dictionary, so someone who never purchased anything online might still receive unwanted messages.

"Spammers are getting cagier and wilier and they're hitting everyone," said Steve Dougherty, director of systems-vendor management for EarthLink Network, one of the nation's largest Internet service providers. A year ago, about 15 percent to 20 percent of the e-mail that managed to get through EarthLink's sophisticated filter was considered spam. Today, "we're seeing 20 to 30 percent getting through."

Individuals are expected to receive, on average, 1,800 pieces of unsolicited e-mail this year, according to Jupiter Media Metrix Inc., an Internet research firm. By 2006, Jupiter expects that number to grow to more than 3,800.

The Law Clicks In

Some lawmakers are trying to curb spam. About two dozen states have enacted laws to control it; many place restrictions only on misrepresentation in e-mails, but a few go so far as to require companies to have toll-free numbers and e-mail addresses where consumers can complain and ask to be taken off marketing lists.

In Virginia, it is illegal to send unsolicited bulk e-mail containing falsified routing information, such as using others' domain name without their permission or including a false or misleading subject line in the address. Violators risk fines of $10 for each piece of unsolicited bulk mail, or $25,000 a day. In Maryland, a similar law goes into effect in October, and violators may be liable for damages of at least $500. The District has no law regarding spam.

Congress is considering legislation to restrict spam, but so far the idea has made little headway. But even if a national anti-spam law were enacted, Internet experts are skeptical that it would reduce spam, and it certainly wouldn't eliminate it. "The way the spamming world works, they'll just go offshore" to escape U.S. oversight, said Brightmail's Salem.

Law enforcement officials are also targeting spam, with federal and state officers filing a number of suits against fraudulent sites and large-scale e-mail marketers.

Brynjolfsson of MIT likens spam to an arms race. "Companies come up with measures and countermeasures to identify and filter out spammers, and the spammers always think of new ways to get around them. . . . As far as I can tell, this will only get worse -- to the point that [electronic] communications will be almost zero."

Said Ray Ozzie, the creator of Lotus Notes, one of the nation's largest e-mail systems: "E-mail is more or less a victim of its own success."

By Caroline E. Mayer and Ariana Eunjung Cha Washington Post Staff Writers
Staff researcher Richard Drezen contributed to this report.

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