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Study: Spammers, Virus Writers Getting Chummy

A new MessageLabs report says more than 86% of the E-mail it sampled in June was spam--and nearly one in 10 contained a virus.

Before year's end, all E-mail messages will be spam. At least that's the way things appear to be headed, according to a report released Tuesday by MessageLabs, an international provider of managed E-mail services.

The company's E-mail Security Intelligence Report, covering January through June and based on a sample of some 5 billion messages, says 86.3% of E-mail in the month of June was spam. During the first four months of the year, the figure ranged from 53% to 67%. Compare that to the first six months of 2002, when the company identified a scant 1.5% of E-mail as spam.

"We thought it couldn't go much higher when it was at 50%," says Brian Czarny, VP of marketing at MessageLabs.

Just as water-treatment plants remove sewage to make palatable drinking water, spam filters keep users from gagging on the junk flowing toward their in-boxes. And for that reason, Czarny expects spammers to keep turning up the volume to compensate for the diminishing number of messages that are getting through.

The report also finds an alarming rise in the number of viruses distributed via E-mail. In April, May, and June, viruses were found in more than 9% of E-mail scanned. During the first six months of 2002 and of 2003, the company found viruses in only 0.3% and 0.5% of the messages it examined.

The reason for this appears to be an alliance between spammers and virus writers. "There's little or no monetary profit to be gained from simply distributing viruses, but when you combine the capabilities of a virus and the profit that can be earned from spam, suddenly you have an altogether more materialistic proposition," the report says. Examples of this trend include the Fizzer, Bugbear, Sobig, and MyDoom worms.

According to Czarny, virus writers try to compromise PCs in homes with broadband connections and then lease access to spammers. A network of thousands of such compromised machines, or zombies, might rent for $50 to $100 for a few hours--plenty of time to send millions of messages while the unsuspecting owners are away from the keyboards.

Perhaps the answer to the spam problem is as simple as turning your PC off when you're not using it. In the meantime, it's hard to imagine statistics more favorable to the selling of spam solutions.

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