Spam Nation

Unknown-3Spam is the use of electronic messaging systems to send unsolicited bulk messages indiscriminately.  The most widely recognized form of spam is e-mail spam.  Spamming remains economically viable because advertisers have no operating costs beyond the management of their mailing lists, and it is difficult to hold senders accountable for their mass mailings.  Because the barrier to entry is so low, spammers are numerous, and the volume of unsolicited mail has become very high.  In the year 2011, the estimated figure for spam messages is around 7,000,000,000,000 (trillion).  The costs, such as lost productivity and fraud, are borne by the public and by Internet service providers, which have been forced to add extra capacity to cope with the deluge.

An industry of e-mail address harvesting is dedicated to collecting email addresses and selling compiled databases.  Some of these address harvesting approaches rely on users not reading the fine print of agreements, resulting in them agreeing to send messages indiscriminately to their contacts.  A 2009 Cisco Systems report lists the origin by country of spam.  In 10 countries, the total volume of spam messages was 34,700,000,000,000 (trillion) with the United States contributing 6.6 trillion.

The earliest documented spam was a message advertising a new model of Digital Equipment Corporation computers sent to 393 recipients on ARAPANET in 1978.  The first known electronic chain letter, titled Make Money Fast, was released in 1988.  By 2009, the majority of spam sent around the world was in the English language.  The California legislature found that spam cost the United States organizations alone more than $13 billion dollars in the year 2007, including lost productivity and the additional equipment, software, and manpower needed to combat the problem.  Because spamming contravenes the vast majority of Internet Service Providers acceptable use policies, most spammers have for many years gone to some trouble to conceal the origins of their spam.  Spammers frequently use false names, addresses, phone numbers, and other contact information to set up “disposable” accounts at various Internet service providers.   In some cases, they have used falsified or stolen credit card numbers to pay for these accounts.  This allows them to quickly move from one account to the next as each one is discovered and shut down by the host ISP.

E-mail spam exemplifies a real tragedy. Spammers use resources without bearing the entire cost of those resources.  In fact, spammers commonly do not bear the cost at all.  In some ways, spam is even a potential threat to the entire e-mail system.  Since e-mail is so cheap to send, a tiny number of spammers can saturate the Internet with junk mail.  Although only a tiny percentage of their targets are motivated to purchase their products or fall victims to their scams, the low cost may provide a sufficient conversion rate to keep the spamming alive.  One conversion rate was calculated at one in 12,000,000 for pharmaceutical spam and another statistic was listed as “after 28 days, and almost 350 million email messages, only 28 sales resulted!”

If one asks the spammers themselves why they got into the business, it all comes down to one thing – money.  One spammer made up to $15,000 a month.  Right now, the burden in fighting spam lies with the individual companies and e-mail service providers.  In the mean time, the problem is definitely growing.

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Written by
Donald Wittmer