Putting a lid on spam in the enterprise: Part 1

Spam, the electronic equivalent of junk mail, continues to overload in-boxes everywhere.

Today, Internet users in the U.S. are at the receiving end of a vicious spam cycle: More spam is sent out than ever, which lessens the chance that recipients will react to it. If you add to that the increase in the number of spam-filtering mechanisms put in place by consumers and companies, the result is that even more spam must be sent out to achieve enough leads to generate profits.

What used to be simply a nuisance is now an epidemic. Spam slows enterprise networks and clogs in-boxes. It has captured the attention of federal lawmakers and major Internet service providers such as America Online and Yahoo. Where did spam come from, and what can be done to stop it?

Origins of spam

Spam isn't new; it has been around since the start of the Internet. Spam may also be referred to as "unsolicited commercial e-mail" (UCE) or "unsolicited bulk e-mail" (UBE), e-mail messages sent in bulk without prior request or consent. In the early days of the Internet, "spam" was commonly used to describe e-mail blasts sent by companies to promote or sell their products and services. Marketing organizations initially latched on to the direct-mail potential of Internet e-mail as a way to cheaply reach thousands of users. They quickly realized that this new mass communication form was frustrating, ineffective and alienating customers, especially if arrived unsolicited.

Unfortunately, not all marketers view spam in this light. Companies today that do business through spamming are unconcerned about image or brand; they're looking for a few percentage points of a response rate on a very economical mass-marketing campaign.

The bad taste of spam

Over the past year and a half, spam has become a major problem, accounting for nearly 50% of e-mail traffic. As a result, enterprise networks are left to process and host thousands of e-mails that have no commercial value, and IT departments must spend extra time, energy and money to find ways to block spam from entering the workplace.

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Opinion
Chris Miller
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More reasons why spam leaves a bad taste in enterprises' mouths:

  • Spam clogs servers and desktops, consuming computing resources.
  • It disrupts user productivity. It takes time to sort through good and bad e-mail, not including the time spent on the IT administrator and help desk's end, too.
  • Not only is spam annoying, it can also be offensive.
  • The graphic and obscene nature of many spam e-mails raises concerns about legal liability.

Ferris Research estimates that spam will cost U.S. organizations more than $10 billion in 2003. That figure includes lost productivity and the additional equipment, software and time needed to combat spam.

How do spammers find you?

Here are the most common techniques used by spammers to compile their lists of e-mail addresses:

  • The Internet: Any e-mail address that's posted or available on the Internet is a target. Spammers collect e-mail addresses from a wide variety of Internet sources, including Web sites, browsers, yellow pages, white pages and even chat rooms. Usenet newsgroup postings are a common source of addresses for spammers.
  • Buying and trading lists: "List brokers" will sell e-mail lists to spammers for a price. Buying, selling and trading lists among spammers is a common practice. Generally, once an e-mail address gets on a single distribution list, it will quickly find its way onto many other spam lists.
  • Guessing: Guessing addresses, sometimes known as the "dictionary method," is an effective way to harvest e-mail addresses. For example, by placing one or a combination of 26 letters in front of or behind popular surnames and using popular mail domains such as Yahoo.com or even Fortune 5,000 companies' domains, a spammer can easily generate thousands of valid e-mail addresses. For addresses that don't work, the cost is effectively nothing to the spammer when it fails delivery. There are software tools specially designed to let spammers generate millions of e-mails using this method.

Delivery vehicles for spam

The vast majority of Internet service providers restrict their customers from sending spam e-mails through usage policies, so spammers often need to operate covertly and use other–usually stolen–network resources. The following are the main delivery vehicles for spam messages:

  • Open relays: Spammers identify open relays on the Internet and use these servers to send their bulk messages, both to disguise the origin and as a "free" resource for sending mass e-mail. The owners of these mail relays are usually legitimate companies with improperly configured mail servers.

  • Rogue Internet service providers: A "SpamHaus" makes a business out of delivering spam. It plugs directly into the Internet backbone, paying fees to major carriers just as a legitimate service provider would. These spammers continually rotate domain names and Internet Protocol subnets to avoid detection by spam filters and blacklists and freely send spam around the world.

  • One-time accounts: Spammers often sign up for free or trial e-mail accounts at a major Internet service provider or Web mail provider, such as AOL or Yahoo and proceed to send spam from that e-mail address until they are shut down, only to move on to another free account.

  • Open Web proxies: If improperly configured, "open" proxies can allow outside users to connect to a Web server (via Port 80, for example) and anonymously connect to a random mail server to send spam.

  • Wireless Internet connections: Wireless connections are more prevalent than ever, and this opens up a whole new avenue for spammers to gain access to network resources.

Coming in Part 2: Legislation has been proposed to curb the spam problem; find out what you can do to keep your enterprise spam-free.

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Copyright © 2003 IDG Communications, Inc.

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