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Swamped In A Sea Of Spam

Message-filtering service warns that the volume of spam could surpass legitimate E-mail by July.

A message-filtering service warned Wednesday that spam will exceed legitimate E-mail traffic by July. MessageLabs says E-mail threats, including viruses and spam, are increasing at an "alarming rate."

MessageLabs says that about 30% of all E-mail sent in November was spam, a figure that's actually smaller than other recent estimates.

The spam rate is increasing rapidly; overall for the year, only one in 12 messages was spam. Spam will likely peak in July and decline through the rest of 2003, although it will continue to make up the bulk of E-mail next year.

This year has seen a marked increase in malicious spam, such as financial scams. The most well-known of these, the Nigerian scam, seems to make particular victims of Americans. A recent report by the U.K. National Criminal Intelligence Service stated that as many as five Americans per day have been seen waiting in London hotel lobbies to meet people connected with the scam. MessageLabs predicted Nigerian scam operations will gross more than $2 billion in 2003.

Another new wrinkle in malicious spam is the FriendGreeting applet, a legitimate-looking online greeting-card service that tricks users into downloading an applet that mass-mails the addresses in a user's Windows address book and invites recipients to go to a greeting-card site, where they're prompted to download the same applet. MessageLabs has intercepted 70,000 copies of that E-mail.

The company predicts that spam next year will not only scour address books for E-mail addresses but will also look through the user's Internet Explorer cache, as viruses now do.

Gartner analyst Joyce Graff says spam is a serious problem, but she disputes MessageLabs' estimate that spam will account for half of all E-mail traffic by midyear. She says users often erroneously lump together all their annoying E-mail into the category of spam, including both real spam, such as con games and phony businesses, and business mail that they're copied on by overzealous colleagues.

"Do I believe that we may find more than half the messages in our mailbox annoying? Maybe so," Graff says. "But do I think that more than half of E-mail traffic will actually be spam? No."

The MessageLabs report comes on the heels of a report from the Pew Internet and American Life Project that says that the overwhelming majority of Americans don't have a serious problem with spam. Graff says the report represents a legitimate viewpoint for a lot of people, but E-mail and spam overload aren't mythical just because they affect only a minority of users. She notes that the research was done in April, and spam has increased since then.

The report did not take into account how many users work for companies that have effective spam filters. Spam accounts for 30% to 50% of E-mail at many companies, although some have effective blocking techniques that make the problem all but invisible to users. "I suspect a number of the people surveyed are working for enterprises that are effectively controlling spam," Graff says.

Some 15% of respondents say they find spam and E-mail overload to be problematic--and that, Graff says, roughly corresponds to the percentage of the corporate workforce in the information sector.

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