Spam could make up the majority of e-mails by the end of 2002, according to data from e-mail service providers. The mail of internet users is fast becoming clogged with ads for pornography, money-making schemes and health products. In July, according to Brightmail, unsolicited bulk e-mail made up 36% of all e-mail, up from 8% about a year ago. Getting our e-mail has becoming a daily drudgery, because we have to sort through these obnoxious and annoying messages.

It?s also slowing down business productivity, since employees are paid for the time they spend wading through this spam. Market research firm Gartner estimates that a company of 10,000 employees suffers more than $13 million worth of lost productivity because of spam. “A year, year-and-a-half ago, spam was an annoyance; now it’s a productivity drain,” says Gartner?s Maurene Carson Grey. “A lot of the spam has become quite distasteful, and it’s a drain…not just on bandwidth, but on storage.”

Dennis Bell, of Cypress Semiconductors of San Jose, California, estimates that a year ago, his company received one spam for every 20 legitimate e-mail messages; today the ratio is closer to one in four. “The problems were mostly just a nuisance, but they were a large nuisance,” says Bell, who now uses Brightmail anti-spam software. Although spam still accounts for nearly 25 percent of the e-mail sent to Cypress, now only about 5% gets through, so his employees don’t see most of it.

Steve Linford, of the non-profit SpamHaus Project in the U.K., posts information about the groups behind most of the unsolicited e-mail, and maintains a list of domains that spammers user. Companies can block e-mails from the listed domains, which stops a lot of the spam, but risks blocking legitimate e-mail messages as well. “It’s an arms race,” Linford says. “The more we lock (spammers) down, the more techniques they try to get around us.”

MessageLabs, another U.K. spam-busting company, reports that its customers classify 35 to 50% of their e-mail as spam. “We are starting to get to the point where companies find it hard to deal with the Internet, says marketing director John Harrington. “For a spammer it’s a cost effective way to (reach people). It’s cost shifting: Everyone else is taking the burden for these guys sending out 50,000 or 100,000 e-mails.”

Linford said the increase in spam is a result of new anti-spam technologies, because companies compensate by sending out more spam. “They are getting really bad returns, so they have to spam millions more,” he says. “It’s happening because it is nearly free to send e-mail to a million people.”

Many U.S.-based Internet service providers have cracked down on spammers that use their networks. But Linford says that “spam gangs” simply start sending mail from other countries. “We are hoping that the U.S. government will bring in a federal anti-spam law,” he says. “That will take care of the majority of the problem. We will still have the spam gangs, but they will be doing it illegally. We would be running them out of business, or underground.”

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