As the Internet evolves, is there a place for spam?

Spam volumes are down dramatically, but the scourge of the Internet is smarter and more dangerous than ever

In the late 1990s Robert Soloway made $20,000 a day as a spammer. He drove fancy cars. He wore Armani clothes. He was, by all accounts, one of the most successful spammers on the planet. But if he were starting out today, he'd find some other line of work.

Spam King Robert Soloway
"Spam King" Robert Soloway says that if he were starting out today, he would not get into spamming. The spam filters are just too good.

In 2011, spamming just won't pay the bills. "It's not something financially feasible for anyone to even consider," said Soloway, who was released from the Federal Correctional Institution in Sheridan, Oregon a few months ago, after serving almost four years in prison for spamming.

For a time, his business was good. He spammed people to advertise his company, Newport Internet Marketing, which in turn offered a full range of spamming services for the unscrupulous marketer. $195, for example, would buy a 15-day spam run targeting 2 million addresses. Those with more cash could pay $495 and the Spam King, as federal prosecutors called him, would hit 20 million in-boxes.

But Soloway now says that even before federal agents arrested him four years ago, spam was a losing proposition. In 2007, "when I had 10 years of experience and knew every possible way to send out spam," he was still losing money, he said.

His problem? Spam filters had become too good. In 1997 Soloway was making his $20,000 a day with just one Earthlink account and a single mail server. Ten years later, he had hundreds, perhaps thousands of accounts, computers and Internet domains which he used to play an increasingly complex game of cat-and-mouse with the anti-spam crusaders trying to shut him down. When he finally stopped, he was making just $20 per day. "That should tell you how effective the anti-spam community has become," he said.

With each passing year, the reports of criminal activity on the Internet seem to get more disturbing. Distributed denial of service attacks knock entire nations offline; criminal gangs make off with hundreds of millions of dollars using stolen bank card data, a nation's nuclear ambitions are thwarted by a new type of computer worm.

But lately a ray of light has cut through all the gloom. Spam -- the Internet's original sin -- dropped for the first time ever at the end of 2010. In September, Cisco System's IronPort group was tracking 300 billion spam messages per day. By April, the volume had shrunk to 34 billion per day, a remarkable decline. "The largest spam-sending botnets are being shut down and a lot of the big pharmaceutical spam has disappeared," said Nilesh Bhandari, a product manager with Cisco.

Cisco's IronPort group has registered a dramatic drop in spam over the past year
Cisco's IronPort group has registered a dramatic drop in spam over the past year.

Spam watchers say a handful of high-profile arrests at the end of 2010 put a dent in the business, but there may be a bigger issue: E-mail spamming, at least in its traditional form, may not be as profitable as it once was.

"You don't see a lot of new blood coming to the table," said Joe Stewart, a researcher with Dell's SecureWorks group. Every year or two Stewart takes a look at the top spamming botnets on the Internet. He analyzes spam messages and tracks down the networks of hacked computers responsible for sending them out.

This year, the news was that there was no news. Stewart didn't find any new spam botnets. "Everything that is spamming today is pretty much what was spamming two years ago," he said in February when he released his latest report.

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