Friday, March 03, 2006

Chris Barton: Spammers rule despite the net police

This is my fifth year of spam sampling - a survey I do at this time of year. I survey 100 unsolicited junk email in an effort to determine trends, not just about spam but about the human condition.

First the bad news. Contrary to some reports, the spam deluge is not slowing. For the past two years it has taken 2 days to get 100 spams in my inbox. This year I'm sorry to report I get 100 spams in just over a day.

The good news is that for the first time the company's spam filter actually works. Nearly all my spam is automatically routed to a "blocked" folder - although four or five a day still get through.

Soon, the company says, it will automatically delete the spam before it gets in - but not before giving us a chance to view the corralled delinquents. This is particularly important for journalists because, as we all know, we're always getting sent emails about scams and other salacious matters because they make such good stories.

The problem with spam filters is that they jump on banned words without thinking. Even the manager who sent out an email to us all headed "Spam relief in sight" got caught out because the spam filter didn't like the word "spam" and immediately quarantined his missive - the result being that many at the Herald never got the good news.

The number one category of spam this year was offers to buy pharmaceuticals (39 per cent) - with 25 per cent of them being for either Viagra or Cialis.

Online drugs have topped the list for the past wo years and the trend is correlated with a corresponding decline in specific offers for weight loss (only 4 per cent) and other remedies for erectile dysfunction (5 per cent). Online pharmacies are clearly the new El Dorado: "Click here for getting your health problems away."

The next biggest category was buying advice for stocks and shares (15 per cent) - mostly from a dubious crowd calling themselves Smart Money Equities. Such offers have featured every year in my sample but never before in these quantities.

"We would like to introduce you to a company involved in the nanotechnology field. It is widely believed among experts that this could be the next sector to lead an economic boom."

Unreadable spam - email that ends up as hieroglyphics on screen or is in a foreign language - was slightly down (13 per cent compared to 19 last year) and it is noted the spammers are using all sorts of new tricks, such as spaced-out text and images, to beat the spam filters.

Another older trick is to use non-sequitur quotes in the messages: "After they had secured all the booty they could find, the tall Turk, who seemed the leader of the three, violently kicked at the prisoner with his heavy boot."

Spammers also continue to use ridiculous monikers to ply their trade. Names such as Brusque Vinson, Hiram Jorgensen, Icarus Sidle, Heineken Q. Frieda and Timothe Tolle. Apparently we, and the spam filters, are supposed to believe these are real people.

Scams (7 per cent) make a comeback this year. As always there's at least one Nigerian version, but most of the others come from Ecolife - "one of the largest cleansing facility dealers in the world" - which seems to want your bank account number so they can offer you riches and then take you to the cleaners.

Cheap loan offers (8 per cent) are down on last year, as are replica watches (3 per cent). Software sales are steady on 5 per cent and exhortations to view porn almost non-existent (2 per cent) in contrast to 2003, when they featured in 15 per cent of the spam.

What does all this tell us about today's net zeitgeist?

The drugs seem to be working so no one needs porn any more, people still believe money grows on trees and spammers, despite the efforts of the spam police, still rule.

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