Spam Trends: More Spam, Less Annoyance

Spam volumes are increasing, but we're finding unsolicited messages less annoying, according to one study. Meanwhile, the spam-fighting product market seems to be tipping toward appliance-based packages that also cover other e-mail security issues, such as anti-virus, another report finds.

Growing Volume

Even with improved spam-fighting software, the U.S. CAN-SPAM law and growing public awareness of ways to limit spam, most observers agree spammers are still on the march.

According to a report last month by e-mail researchers at the Radicati Group, there were 37.7 billion spam messages per day in 2004. That accounted for 49 percent of the 76.8 billion messages per day. Viruses, by comparison, accounted for half a billion messages per day, or 0.7 percent.

Spam filtering vendor MessageLabs reports an even worse ratio. In an average month in 2004, MessageLabs contends spam made up 73 percent of e-mail, an increase from 40 percent in 2003.

A survey released last week by the Pew Internet & American Life Project also found that more e-mail users report getting more spam than a year ago rather than less spam.

Against this backdrop, the first U.S. felony prosecution for spamming was a success. Earlier this month, Jeremy Jaynes of Raleigh, N.C., received a nine-year sentence for his November conviction under Virginia law. Jaynes, who is free on $1 million bond for his appeal, was using 16 high-speed lines to send more than 10 million e-mails per day.

But e-mail researchers have little hope that the conviction and other laws, such as CAN-SPAM, will turn around the trend toward more spam.

By 2009, the Radicati Group expects the number of spam messages per day to quadruple to 151.8 billion. The researchers expect the volume of legitimate e-mail worldwide to hold relatively steady over the period at 38-39 billion, giving spam 78 percent of e-mail volume by then.

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Growing Tolerance

A year ago, there was serious concern spam would swamp and sink e-mail as a useful communications medium. Although there's been no let up in spam volumes since then, user backlash may have peaked.

A Pew survey in February 2004 represented cause for alarm about users' attitudes toward e-mail in light of spam. Two months after the CAN-SPAM law passed, Pew's national telephone survey found 29 percent of users saying they were using e-mail less because of spam (up four points from June 2003), 62 percent saying spam caused them to lose trust in e-mail (up 10 points) and 77 percent saying spam made being online unpleasant or annoying (up six points).

In the new poll, done in January and released last week, the negatives fell back significantly to mid-2003 figures or even lower. "This suggests the findings from almost one year ago might have represented a spike or a high point, rather than a growing negative trend of the impact of spam on the internet experience," the report's authors wrote.

One reason users are less annoyed by spam -- because of filters or for other reasons, they're receiving fewer of the pornographic spam messages that they report as the most offensive.

In terms of threat perceptions, phishing seems to be overtaking spam as public e-mail enemy number one. The Pew project provides some insight into why phishing scams are proliferating. Only 35 percent of survey respondents reported receiving phishing scams in the last year. Of those respondents, however, a full 2 percent admitted to falling for the scam e-mail messages that ask users to fill out personal financial information such as credit card numbers on a spoofed site that looks like a legitimate bank or credit card company.

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Bundled and Boxed

Vendors continue to seek ways to help the enterprise keep spam out of users' inboxes.

According to the Radicati report, anti-spam technology is nearing the point of commoditization. "Spam catch rates and false positive levels advertised by many security vendors no longer drive purchasing decisions. Most organizations are now more focused on the manageability and functionality of e-mail security products, rather than spam catch rates," the report by analyst Teney Takahashi found.

While Microsoft's purchase of Sybari is an example of an e-mail software vendor trying to meet demand for a centralized, integrated solution, the real action is in the e-mail security appliance area, Takahashi wrote. E-mail security software currently accounts for more than half of the total e-mail security market, estimated at $3.8 billion in 2005.

The main attractions of the appliances are ease of deployment, centralized administration capabilities, perimeter-based filtering for inbound and outbound e-mail and the ability to filter high volumes of message traffic, according to Radicati.

"2005 will be a landmark year for the E-mail Security market. For the first time, industry growth will be driven by E-mail Security Appliances, rather than software – a key transformation that signifies an overall shift in the way e-mail security is implemented," according to Takahashi. "E-mail Security Appliances will generate $363 million in 2005 – still only a fraction of the total E-mail Security market. However, we expect this segment to experience explosive growth over the next four years, with revenue increasing by more than 400 percent."

Whether it's an appliance or a software package, putting one piece of software or hardware between spammers and your e-mail servers won't be enough to stave off spam, according to the Radicati report. This year, an estimated 17 percent of corporations have more than one anti-spam solution. By 2009, Radicati estimates 44 percent will employ a layered defense.