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Fighting Email Spam

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Washington, DC - There isn't an email address in existence that doesn't receive spam. If you never get spam mail, be sure to thank the company that created your spam-busting software, or the IT security expert at your job who configures the computers for spam rejection. Even though you may not see spam messages in your personal inbox, millions of them flood email servers every minute.

In the ongoing effort to combat spam and phishing, the Federal Trade Commission held a two-day summit on July 11 and 12 to define and address the problem. The conference brought together experts from the business, government, and technology sectors, consumer advocates, and academics to explore consumer protection issues surrounding email spam, phishing and malware.

Earlier findings indicated that most spam was fraudulent, deceptive, and offensive. How has the nature of spam shifted? Is spam now being used for malicious and criminal purposes? Is this spam reaching consumers’ inboxes or being filtered by Internet service providers’ filtering software?

When spammers first began sending rogue messages over the Internet, it was difficult for them to hide. They often used "throw-away" email accounts that were never intended to receive personal emails. In recent years however, savvy spammers have several ways to generate and transmit spam messages. Many spammers, which are often large companies, now use the computers of unsuspecting owners to retransmit their trash. These "zombie computers" are hit with viruses that allow spammers to auto-generate millions of useless messages through another computer -- making it extremely difficult to locate the offender.

Whether it's pitching Adobe software, prescription drugs, or hardcore sex -- spam has become an enormous problem for users and internet service providers (ISP's). Large companies with huge email systems such as AOL, Hotmail, Yahoo and Comcast block up to 2 billion messages every day. This eats up computing resources, creating more work for IT security personnel and driving up the price of cable and Internet services.

Most spam is created to produce "in-your-face" advertising and isn't intended to be malicious like viruses, hijackers, malware, or worms. However, all spam is annoying and that's enough to drive the average computer user to explore options for keeping their email accounts free of junk.

But some ISP's have seen an increase in spam designed to support criminal activity. Some illegal businesses being promoted by spammers include the sell and promotion of illegal drugs, weapons, under-age sex partners from foreign countries, and money laundering. For junk email creators, advertising their illegal activity is cheap and easy. It costs spammers no more to send one email than it does to send a million emails.

Whether created for criminal, annoyance, or advertising purposes -- how do we stop spam?

Several attempts have already been made including:

For personal and home use, use one or more of the following methods to help stop spam:
  1. use spam filtering software
  2. use your email providers' built-in junk mail filter
  3. use a firewall on your computer
  4. do not post your email address on websites, including social networking sites
The amount of spam and junk mail has become so unmanageable that several businesses refuse to make their email addresses public. Instead, they use fill-in forms where users are required to type in information for future communications.

For Internet users, there is no easy solution. Junk mail filters are great, but not perfect. Spam is an unfortunate side effect of the information techology age and we hope to see an immeasureable decrease in spam and spammers in the very near future.

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