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11/7/2003
01:32 PM
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Spam Nation

It's a [bad] part of our everyday lives. Who's behind this stuff?

The value of E-mail as a means of marketing is equally apparent. Richter says his rapidly growing company of 28 employees has revenue approaching $2 million a month. The California bulk E-mailer who spoke on condition of anonymity describes his printer-supply business as "very, extremely" profitable.

Such reports support figures from the Direct Marketing Association, which finds that 36% of E-mail users have bought a product or service as a result of a commercial E-mail last year and that 9% of E-mail users have made a purchase in response to unsolicited E-mail.

Pinpointing the origin of spam, a necessary step for effective law enforcement, is one of the thorniest problems, because of the mutability of message-header information and "relay raping," the practice of using open server relays to conceal the path of a message. And anti-spam tools don't help, Richter contends. "All these technology companies are doing is taking legitimate marketers who aren't causing problems and filtering our mail because that's all they can catch consistently," he says.

That perspective isn't shared by everyone, particularly those selling anti-spam tools. Marten Nelson, director of business analysis and strategy for anti-spam vendor CipherTrust Inc., likens spam to computer viruses. "It will continue to be a problem," he says. "But it will be controlled." That's also the view from IronPort Systems Inc., another anti-spam technology vendor. "The technology will develop acceptable levels of spam-stopping," says VP of marketing Tom Gillis. "But making it go away completely will be hard."

Of the 161 spammers listed in early November on Spamhaus.org's Registry of Known Spam Operations--a list run by Spamhaus.org, a nonprofit Web site run out of the United Kingdom--132 are based in the United States. But according to the business-intelligence division of E-mail solutions vendor Brightmail Inc., 90% of spam is untraceable by available methods. Francois Lavaste, VP of marketing, says that among the spam snared by Brightmail, the claimed continents of origin break down as follows: 85% from North America, 14% from Europe, and the remainder from Asia and elsewhere.

But about half of the spam received in the United States is probably routed through overseas servers, says Brian Huseman, a Federal Trade Commission staff attorney, citing consensus at the FTC Spam Forum this spring. Richter says only 30% of the spam received in the United States is native, with the remainder coming mostly from Canada and China.

Brightmail has noticed an increase in Trojan horse programs that turn PCs into spam generators, sending E-mails from unsuspecting owners. "These are nasty because they hide the spammers' tracks," says Ken Schneider, chief technology officer at Brightmail.

Internet service providers put a lot of effort into combating spam, blocking illegitimate incoming messages and bouncing spammers sending out messages from their systems. While technology can be employed to automate the identification and blocking of unsolicited bulk E-mail, catching and legally removing a spam sender remains a human-driven process. "The way we find out that spam has traveled across our network is when we receive a complaint from a user," says Craig Silliman, director of the network and facilities legal team for MCI. Mary Youngblood, abuse team manager for EarthLink Inc., says it can take months to get a resilient spammer off the network through the legal system.

So who's behind all this? Ray Everett-Church, chief privacy officer for ePrivacyGroup.com, a consulting, training, and software firm focused on privacy, says spammers fall into two categories. The first is the fairly clueless Internet user who thinks he or she can get rich doing it. "Typically, what they find very quickly is their Internet service gets disconnected, they don't get very much response, and they tend to leave the business very quickly," he says. "The second category of spammers," he says, are "the professional criminals--and I don't use the word 'criminals' lightly. A good number of them have had substantial run-ins with the law."

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