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Spam joins pounds on New Year's 'to shed' list

Deluge of unwanted e-mail greets workers, again raising questions about effectiveness of filters. And the onslaught could get worse.

Tim Rechin didn't wait until the end of the holidays to wade through a mountain of work e-mail.

Instead, the manager at software firm Elance checked his e-mail from his home--as well as his parents' home and his in-laws' home--about every other day last week. Ostensibly off-duty, he spent hours sorting through his in-box hoping to start 2005 on a productive foot rather than buried in spam upon his return to work.

Spam overload after a few days out of the office is nothing new. But it tends to be more pronounced after the new year, when many workers return en masse from a week or more off. "Unless you use an intricate organization system, you get this deluge of e-mail," Rechin said. "Most of the time gets spent trying to tell if it's of value."

Rechin's in-box, which typically gets about 80 messages a day, was far from the fullest this holiday season. One CNET reporter returned from a 10-day vacation to discover he'd received more than 60,000 pieces of spam caught by various filtering programs. Another 8,100 messages landed in his in-box, of which more than 7,600 were spam that had to be deleted by hand.

The mound of e-mail workers had to sort through after the holidays this year was likely higher than last year's: Corporate e-mail traffic has been growing with a larger proportion of spam.

In 2004, the average corporate user received 94 e-mails a day, up from 81 the year before, according to research firm The Radicati Group. Last year, 45 percent of corporate messages were spam, compared to 42 percent in 2003. Even higher hills of e-mail messages are likely to await workers after the holidays in the future. Radicati predicts that the average corporate user will get 102 messages a day in 2008, with 64 percent of corporate messages made up of spam.

Products such as Microsoft's Outlook 2003 are getting better at identifying and filtering undesired messages, but spammers keep turning up the volume, Radicati analyst Teney Takahashi said. "For every antispam technology that proves effective, the amount of spam traffic increases by just as much," he said.

Unwanted e-mail makes up an even greater percentage of messages sent to consumers, according to Radicati. And whereas spam was once just a nuisance, virus-laden messages and fraudulent practices like phishing make sorting through e-mail a dangerous activity.

Although Mike Atkinson, business development manager at call center company eTelecare Global Solutions, says his corporate e-mail account is relatively spam-free, he does face one e-mail volume-related problem. He has been getting messages from eTelecare's information technology department telling him that his e-mail box is almost full. "It's been more difficult to clean out (the account) and to define what's useful," he said.