If it seems like you’re seeing a lot more spam lately, it’s not just you. During the past few months, the incidence of spam shot up around the world. In 2001, researchers estimated that about 5% of all Internet traffic was spam – one spam message for every twenty real messages. By 2003, researchers estimated that 50-60% of all traffic on the Internet was spam – one spam message for each good message. In September of this year, that number was up over 80% – 4 spam messages for every real message.

In the past month, two new computer viruses were released both of which are specially designed to generate spam messages. These viruses are very sophisticated and have been very hard for the anti-virus companies to block. (See this TechWeb article for details.) The latest estimates are that there are 9-10 spam messages for each good message on the Internet. All that means that the total volume of spam on the Internet is way, way up.

Good spam filters are generally 95-98% effective at identifying spam messages as spam. That’s actually a pretty good ratio and is about as good as any software package can get. Unfortunately, when you pump so much increased volume through a filter with a 2% leakage rate, more spam will inevitably leak through.

Some people have asked if they can tweak that filter to block more of the spam. The cost we generally pay for that effectiveness is that about 0.5% of good messages are incorrectly identified as spam. If you tighten the spam filter, you will get an increase in the false positives. Every company is constantly trying to make sure that they are at the right balancing point.

We are in an arms race with the spammers. Every time the anti-spam vendors come up with a technique to identify spam, the spammers adapt and find another way around the filters. It has been a story of incredible creativity and innovation.

While we are waiting for the spam-filter companies to release their next round in the arms race, there are some things that you can do to keep yourself off the spammers’ target lists. Remember that once you’re on one list, spammers will sell your address to other spammers. And once that happens, there’s little you can do except to wait until your address ages off their lists.

  1. Never buy anything advertised in a spam message. If you do, you’ll jump straight to the top of their list.
  2. Never respond to a spam email, even to complain or to attempt to get off their list. Any reply at all confirms to the spammer that you read the message. Even if you didn’t fall for their Viagra scam, they know you might fall for a mortgage scam. Never reply to a spammer. Do not attempt to "unsubscribe" from the list. More often than not, the unsubscribe link is a scam.
  3. If you can, delete the spam message without ever opening it. Spammers use techniques such as web-bugs to track whether or not you opened the message. Again, they hope that even if you didn’t fall for one scam, if you’re the kind of person who opens spam, maybe you’ll fall for a different one.
  4. Do not use your work email address for internet shopping, chat boards, etc. Sign up for a free email account like Yahoo or Hotmail.

The final recommendation is to remember that spam is just like the physical junk mail in your mailbox at home. We do what we can but at some point you just throw it in the trash and let yourself get on with your life.

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