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E-Mail Spam Becomes Growing Nuisance for Computer Users - 2004-03-13

There's no question that electronic mail has greatly improved the speed and convenience of communications in today's world. But computer e-mail has brought with it a major nuisance the seemingly unstoppable torrent unwanted bulk e-mail better known as spam. The problem is growing quickly. Last year, in fact, the amount of spam being sent over the Internet each day surpassed that of legitimate e-mail. Spam is getting so bad that it could force millions of regular e-mail users to abandon what has been a popular and helpful tool.

VOA's Rosanne Skirble talks with computer expert Peter Meyers about a solution.

Skirble: "Peter. I have a problem. And, I know that I am not the only one out there suffering. But, when I came into work this morning after a three day-weekend, I logged on to my computer and was bombarded with 540 unread messages…"

Meyers: "Unbelievable!"

Skirble: ..."of which nearly all were spam. The messages had slugs like, 'Boost your car mileage," "Prescriptions without doctors appointments" and "Tell us about the loan you need."

Meyers: "I have the feeling that you are not giving us even the worst of the things you saw."

Skirble: "No! I am not. And, I deleted all of those and the rest and it probably took me a half-hour to do that. Is this typical or do I have a particularly bad case of "spam-itis?"

Meyers: "Rosanne, I would like to say that you have a particularly bad case, but the sad thing is that you are not alone. Last year, in 2003, the industry estimates were that 60 percent of all e-mail sent is spam."

Skirble: "Is there anything being done? Is there any chance of this getting better?"

Meyers: "First, to begin with a discouraging note. One thing that is making it worse is that the world of spam and viruses are starting to combine, where spam simply used to be unwanted mass marketed e-mail messages like the ones you got, the world of virus writers is now inhabited by people who develop viruses that not only do things like attack computers and erase hard drives and all the awful things that people have heard about, but what they also do is use people's computers to send out more spam. In some cases it is spam that is not intended to accomplish or sell anything, but simply to annoy people like you. So it is as though the problem is growing on two fronts, both from the commercial providers, companies who are trying to sell you products and the virus writers who are using their tools to create more of a nuisance on the web."

Skirble: "Is there anything to be done? Is there any chance of this getting better?

Meyers: "Well there are some very promising developments. In years past, the most common approach has been to use what is called a filter and that tends to be either something the individual user can set up where you indicate that you don't want e-mail that contains naughty words that you know are typically found in spam, or in some cases the e-mail providers like AOL set up big filters and they look for big batches of e-mail sent by notorious spammers and they filter those out.

And there have been some promising discussions that have been happening across the industry. Creative solution number one is a service offered by a new small company called "mail blocks." The system essentially requires anyone who sends you an e-mail to respond to an e-mail that is automatically sent back to them asking them to fill in a very simple number that they see on their screen. The way this system works is that if it is a mass spamming e-mail company, they won't have the time or resources to fill in the number. So the only people who end up being able to send you an e-mail are those who take the time to fill out this number. It is kind of an ingenious solution, but it does require you to sign up for the service of this company."

Skirble: "Is this like an e-mail caller ID?"

Meyers: "That is another solution that is being investigated. Unfortunately, this problem has gotten so bad that many different solutions are being looked at. E-mail caller ID is also known in the tech world as authentication and the current authentication system being used has one major failing. It doesn't protect against forged return addresses. So, spammers are able to send out e-mail that make it look like they are coming from major companies which in fact they are not. So some new authentication systems have been proposed with names like "sender permitted from," and "designated mailers protocol." These are all things that the common user would never end up knowing about, but they do require that all the big e-mail providers around the world agree to them and that is something that hasn't happened yet."

Skirble: "In the meantime while all these solutions are being worked on, what can I do right now?"

Meyers: "There are a couple of quick strategies. First of all the filters that are provided in virtually all e-mail programs should be used, and those are very useful. The second solution is to come up with a couple of e-mail addresses the one you use for business and the one that you only use when you are posting your e-mail on line, say buying something or posting a note to a discussion group. Most e-mail providers now a days let people set up multiple e-mail addresses. The last thing I would say is all things being equal if you can get an e-mail address that isn't provided by one of the big providers [like] AOL, Hotmail, Yahoo you are going to get less e-mail because that is who the spammers target."

Skirble: "Thanks for all this good advice Peter."

Meyers: "Good luck, Rosanne."

Skirble: "I'll need it!