Where spam is going in 2012 and what to do about it

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Over the years Spam has evolved from consisting of annoying but otherwise harmless advertisements, to becoming a carrier of viruses and malware that can damage your computer and make you vulnerable to identity theft (a.k.a. “phishing”).

Despite major developments in the area of anti-spam software and measures such as filters, blocks and blacklists for dubious senders, the negative effects of spam are still being felt by individuals and businesses alike.

How spam affects you

Spam is more than just a minor rash. According to a study by the Radicati Research Group, spam costs businesses US$20.5-billion annually in decreased productivity as well as in technical expenses. Nucleus Research estimates that the average loss per employee annually due to spam is about US$1 934. Predictions for the future costs of spam don’t look any brighter. It is estimated that 58-billion junk emails will be sent every day within the next four years, a figure that will balloon to cost businesses some US$198-billion annually, if spam continues to flourish at its current rate.

A 2011 Symantec Intelligence report yielded some interesting spam statistics. According to the high profile security company, South Africa has lost the crown of “most targeted geography” for phishing emails to the UK. But despite that, spam remains high in South Africa where it accounted for 76.9% of email traffic (with the global average ratio of spam email traffic being 77.8%).

  • Saudi Arabia remained the most spammed country, with a rate of 85.6%. Russia is the 2nd most spammed.
  • In the Netherlands, spam accounted for 78.8% of email traffic, 77.9% in Germany, 77.6% in Denmark and 75.8% in Australia.
  • In Hong Kong, 76.8% of email was blocked as spam, on par with the 75.7% in Singapore and 74.7% in Japan.
  • According to Wikipedia; Brazil, China, France, Germany, India, Japan, Russia, South Korea, United Kingdom and the US are all listed by Spamhaus as the worst spam origin countries.

With billions of dollars being poured into dealing with the spam problem, many governments have stepped up to the plate to address the issue by passing anti-spam laws and enacting directives to help combat the issue.

China, for example, is second only to the United States in terms of adding to the volume of global spam. The country was for long seen as the perfect haven for spam servers thanks to the unwillingness of the government to address the problem. In the early days, a large portion of traffic was being funneled through to China, despite the fact that individual spammers were based elsewhere. At the time, Chinese servers were out of reach to Western governments, but in 2006 China agreed to join worldwide efforts in putting a stop to it by passing very restrictive regulations; an act which has been a widely welcomed move to ensure the safety of internet users all over.

2012 has yet to witness the realisation of the ancient and much-hallowed prophecies that have foretold the decline of spam; but at the very least it’s clear that businesses, governments, and individuals everywhere are becoming increasingly more united in their fight against all forms email-based fraud.

Webmail services: mirror-mirror on the wall, who is the spammiest of them all?

Internet users often want to know if there are any email services out there that have iron-clad spam protection. Since this is an important criteria for service selection to many, there are always some interesting ideas circulating on the ‘who’s-the-most-spam-proof’ debate.

Recently, spam-watchers would’ve seen some fantastic new claims published about which webmail service really has top gun status in the war against spam.

According to one February-released Windows Live blog, it would seem that the people at Microsoft’s Hotmail department have been surprised this year by a wonderful piece of research into webmail spam performance:

“Hotmail has come a long way in spam protection and is now among the best in the industry in keeping spam out of your inbox,” the company’s group program manager, Dick Craddock, wrote. “Our own internal metrics, customer feedback, and even a recent third-party report confirmed that no mail service offers better protection than Hotmail.”

At first, this all sounds hugely promising and prestigious; but what they haven’t told readers is that the research was actually commissioned and paid for by Microsoft itself; that Microsoft chose the webmail services to be tested and had right of veto over publication of the results. Logically, if Microsoft had come second or third to Gmail or Yahoo, it’s likely that the public would’ve never even heard about this latest spam test.

Why?

It’s a little known fact that in 2009, Microsoft commissioned the same research firm to do a similar inquiry. In this case Hotmail came second to Gmail, and instead of publishing the results, the findings were restricted to internal use.

So when studying spam reports, email users need to drill down into the details to differentiate between what is corporate spin and what are the hard facts.

In this case the actual research figures reveal a statistically insignificant gap between Hotmail and Gmail:

Hotmail is in fact no better than Gmail at spam protection — well… not really.

Both let 49% of spam through to the inbox in the tests, when rounded up to the nearest percent. Hotmail very slightly edged it to victory, with 48.57% of spam let through compared to Gmail’s 48.88%. With that said, considering it came 2nd to Gmail in 2009, Google’s spam protection arguably has a better long-term record; which means it’s a constant neck-and-neck race and there is just no obviously superior service.

The research did, however, conclude that while Hotmail and Gmail are dead even when dealing with spam, both did much better than a number of other email providers.

The useful take away here for the average user is that when looking for a secure webmail service; go for the big fish. In reality, large companies like Google and Microsoft are only separated by a paper-thin margin on the subject of systems safety; but because they have the funds to invest in maintaining top-of-the-range infrastructures and because they are fiercely competitive in this arena, they always (generally speaking) have some pretty high walls surrounding their home turf.

What users can do about spam

Is there a land called spam-tasia with you as its king?

If so there are some steps that anyone can take to reduce the amount of junk emails making it to the inbox, both for themselves and for others.

While users may be in the habit of using various preventive or removal techniques that are available for dealing with spam, they should also take the responsibility to report spam so that those behind it can be better identified and eventually stopped.

There have been many instances where authorities have caught and penalised spammers, making them compensate users for the damages wrought on computer systems. Though it might take some time for the benefits to emerge, reporting spam is the best thing that anyone can do the help curb it in the long run.

Says Shaun Swanepoel, Systems Administrator of an international email service provider: “I do believe that spam does get less as technology improves each day, people get smarter and anti-spam laws get tighter, but unfortunately, we will never be totally rid of it. With that said, we can all contribute by reporting spam and protect ourselves by using up-to-date anti-spam software.”

Spam issues looming on the mobile horizon

Spammers are, of course, not going about their business today like it’s 1995. As technology advances, they are adapting to changes in the environment to help better achieve their agenda.

With everyone around the globe going mobile, the small screen will probably be the battleground for the next spam world war. Yes, new innovations such as QR codes are re-shaping shopping experiences and online content-based offerings, but imagine if some of those strategically placed barcodes which many today are scanning even just out of pure curiosity are generated or modified to contain malicious code or to lead to spammy URLs that capture and abuse visitor data.

These are some of the plausible threats of the world of tomorrow that might inspire marketing fear and bring about a great deal of consumer reluctance to make use of the channel, especially as we see the rise of the mobile wallet.

Once spam completes its mobile metamorphosis, developers in the online security industry will have their work cut out for them.

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  • http://profile.yahoo.com/MQHDEUWPD3QYTQ7OFCE4WSIRLI James

    Spammers are, of course, not going about their business today like it’s 1995. As technology
    advances, they are adapting to changes in the environment to help better achieve their agenda.

  • Galileo Vieira

    Galileo from the Hotmail team here. Just wanted to correct some misstatements. First off, there was no such “veto” power as cited by the author. The study was commissioned by us so that an independent 3rd party could evaluate our spam filtering based on their own tests and not ours. They were given full reign over the methodology. We, of course, have our own internal numbers and wanted to see how they stacked up against the 3rd party independent results. But nowhere does “veto” come into play with this research.

    Second, the reason the results of the earlier test weren’t published is because it was simply meant for internal benchmarking. The results themselves weren’t bad, but we simply wanted to see where we were at that point in time so we could measure the progress we would make as a result of our service upgrades. We knew then we weren’t great at fighting spam and have said so publicly many times (as you can see for yourself on our site: http://www.microsoft.com/windows/windowslive/anotherlookathotmail/spam-protection/). With the recent test, the one we did decide to go public with, we simply believed it was time to show our users that we have indeed improved tons over the last few years.

    As you correctly state, we’re now just as good as the perceived leader in fighting spam. We felt we needed to let folks know b/c there is, correctly so, a perception issue around spam in Hotmail. That is now no longer the case as we keep improving our service and, in tandem, work with authorities to take down the source of spam (http://www.microsoft.com/presspass/presskits/dcu/) for the whole of the internet.

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