E-Mail Spam Linked to Economic Slowdown, Symantec Says

The rise in the amount of Spam being eaten by families who have fallen on hard times is commensurate with the rise in e-mail spam, Symantec revealed this week.

In its June State of Spam report (available here as a PDF), the security software and consultancy cited a news story by NBC's Brian Williams that concluded the rising sales of the lunch meat product are "a huge economic indicator of the times, and [of] families trying to do more with less."

Symantec said that "the exact same could be said for e-mail spam. With spam messages accounting for over 80 percent of e-mail in May 2008, the economic slowdown and its effects are definitely being targeted by spammers -- preying on the hardships of people not only in the United States, but worldwide."

Besides making that peculiar comparison, the report analyzed trends such as the misuse of Google's brand name to promote suspicious products, more Nigerian and Russian lost-money-for-nothing scams, work-from-home job offers, and phony notices inviting users to claim their economic stimulus checks online.

According to Symantec, as of May 30, the amount of messages that were classified as spam had risen nearly 20 percent from January of last year.

What and Where
When it comes to the different categories of spam, product offerings took the biggest slice at 27 percent, with get-rich-quick Internet schemes and financial services offerings coming in second and third at 17 percent and 16 percent, respectively.

Smaller categories were pornography, health services, and travel and leisure junk e-mails.

And where are the majority of all these spam messages coming from? Right here in the U.S. of A. The United States accounted for 28 percent of all global spam tracked by Symantec, with Russia and Turkey rounding out the Top 3.

New Threats
If we likened this State of Spam report to a State of the Union address, we would have to conclude that the state of spam is strong.

One of the report's major themes is the international nature of the global network via the Internet. In a separate but related report, Symantec on Wednesday warned users about a new type of spam that targets users of instant messaging (IM) tools like Yahoo Messenger and Microsoft's MSN Messenger.

Symantec believes this remote code execution-based spam -- which deploys after users click on a specially crafted URL posing as a buddy list -- will lead to the theft of user names and passwords as IM becomes a more frequently used tool in corporate and consumer circles.

In the wake of this development, IT pros at Symantec and elsewhere are recommending that users set up decoy or secondary e-mail accounts that are separate from both their work and personal accounts to draw spam traffic.

There is also the option of virtualization, said Jordy Berson, senior product manager at Check Point, which this month will release ForceField, a program that virtualizes only the portions of a given operating system -- whether Windows or Linux -- that interact with the Internet.

"If you can create virtual sessions so that you have a duplicate e-mail window open when you're online, you can create a sandbox effect around your actual session on your desktop computer, which is insulated from the malware and spam being drawn to your virtual session," Berson said. "And, of course, it's smart to use common sense and know that if a deposed dictator wants your account information to funnel money, you should probably pass on giving it to them. Also, empty your spam folder whenever possible."

About the Author

Jabulani Leffall is an award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in the Financial Times of London, Investor's Business Daily, The Economist and CFO Magazine, among others.