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By the end of this year, junk messages could make up the majority of e-mail, leaving corporate network administrators struggling to stay afloat in the flood.

Robert Lemos Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Robert Lemos
covers viruses, worms and other security threats.
Robert Lemos
5 min read
Corporate networks are becoming increasingly clogged by e-mail pitches for pornography, money-making schemes and health products, and there's little relief on the horizon.

Read more about spam

Once a mild annoyance, unsolicited bulk e-mail--also known as spam--could make up the majority of message traffic on the Internet by the end of 2002, according to data from three e-mail service providers.

Businesses "are seeing an enormous increase in spam," said Enrique Salem, CEO of anti-spam service provider Brightmail. "It's become a huge problem."

In July, according to Brightmail's latest interception figures, unsolicited bulk e-mail made up a whopping 36 percent of all e-mail traveling over the Internet, up from 8 percent about a year ago.

Once considered a productivity-enhancing tool, e-mail has become daily drudgery as employees separate wanted messages from heaps of spam. Market research firm Gartner estimates that a company of 10,000 employees suffers more than $13 million worth of lost productivity because of internally generated spam. Add the Internet, and the problem gets much worse.

"A year, year-and-a-half ago, spam was an annoyance; now it's a productivity drain," said Maurene Carson Grey, research director for e-mail and messaging at Gartner. "A lot of the spam has become quite distasteful, and it's a drain...not just on bandwidth, but on storage."

Dennis Bell, director of information technology for Cypress Semiconductors of San Jose, Calif., found out just how draining the problem can be.

A year ago, he estimated the company saw one spam for every 20 legitimate e-mail messages; today the ratio is closer to one in four.

"The problems were mostly just a nuisance, but they were a large nuisance," said Bell, who decided to sign on with Brightmail because of his frustration in dealing with the influx.

An e-mail arms race
Using anti-spam software on specialized servers, Brightmail can discern spam from legitimate e-mail. The software can also upload potentially new forms of spam for analysis, and develop recognition algorithms to identify and filter new types of junk e-mail.

Although spam still accounts for nearly 25 percent of the e-mail sent to Cypress, with Brightmail, Cypress employees don't see most of the junk messages. Without the service, "we would be getting so many complaints that we would have to find some solution," Bell said. Now only about 5 percent of the junk e-mail gets through.

Companies aren't the only ones suffering. Gartner believes that consumer mailboxes may be inundated with even more junk e-mail than those of businesses.

And the mess is likely to grow worse, said Steve Linford, director of the London-based SpamHaus Project. The nonprofit organization posts information about the groups behind the majority of unsolicited e-mail, and maintains a "black hole" list of domains from which spammers operate. Companies can block any e-mails from the listed domains, stopping a great deal of spam, but running the risk that legitimate e-mail messages may also be blocked.

Public efforts, as well as young companies with new technologies and services, have made sending spam a lot more difficult. However, legislators have been slow to enact laws that would help stop the onslaught, leaving companies and home users to foot the bill.

"It's an arms race," Linford said. "The more we lock (spammers) down, the more techniques they try to get around us."

Efforts by grassroots groups have caused many U.S.-based Internet service providers to crack down on spammers that use their networks. But, Linford said, unrepentant "spam gangs" simply start launching their attacks from other countries.

Brightmail competitor Postini, a relative newcomer to the business, found that spam made up 33 percent of customers' e-mail last month, up from 21 percent in January.

"There is apparently, because of the economic times, more of an inclination to use spam to drum up business," said Doug McLean, vice president of marketing for Postini. Earlier this year, the company released a study concluding that 53 percent of e-mail server processing time is wasted on junk e-mail and e-mail attacks.

MessageLabs, a U.K. company that offers services to stop viruses and spam, reports that its customers classify 35 percent to more than 50 percent of their e-mail traffic as spam.

"We are starting to get to the point where companies find it hard to deal with the Internet," said John Harrington, director of marketing for MessageLabs. "For a spammer it's a cost effective way to (reach people). It's cost shifting: Everyone else is taking the burden for these guys sending out 50,000 or 100,000 e-mails."

Spammers work harder
While the e-mail service providers believed that the hard economic times could account for the increase, SpamHaus' Linford said the trend was a natural result of an increase in new anti-spam technologies.

Such technologies have made it harder for the Internet marketers to connect with unwilling customers, so they compensate by sending out more e-mail.

"They are getting really bad returns, so they have to spam millions more," Linford said. "It's happening because it is nearly free to send e-mail to a million people. It would have happened regardless of the economy."

The increase in spam may be a blight for users and companies, but it's gold for the e-mail service providers.

Brightmail, which focuses on providing services to large Internet service providers such as the Microsoft Network and Earthlink, expects to double the number of e-mail accounts it scans to 200 million by the end of the year. The company's products already screen more than 2 billion e-mails every month.

Postini closed its third--and last--round of funding, for $10 million, in January, and the company processed its 1 billionth e-mail message in April. In addition, new firms are entering the market: MailFrontier closed its first round of funding this week, netting $5 million.

Legislation, rather than an arms race with spammers, is needed to curb spam, Linford said.

"We are hoping that the U.S. government will bring in a federal anti-spam law," Linford said. "That will take care of the majority of the problem." If the United States passed a restrictive law, other countries would be more likely to follow, he said.

"We will still have the spam gangs, but they will be doing it illegally," Linford said. "We would be running them out of business, or underground."