Spam eroding trust in e-mail, threatening high-tech economy: report

New report shows many organizations battling spam with relative success but 10 per cent of employees with e-mail accounts spend 30 minutes or more a day dealing with junk e-mail

Spam is undermining the integrity of e-mail and could pose a threat to entire high-tech economy, according to a new report.

The Pew Internet and American Life project looked at e-mail use in the U.S. and found that Internet users report they trust e-mail less and some even use e-mail less because of spam.

“Users worry that the growing volume of spam is getting in their way of their ability to reliably send and receive e-mail,” said Deborah Fallows, the Pew senior research fellow who wrote the report. “They complaint that it uncontrollably clutters their inboxes and imposes uninvited, deceptive and often disgustingly offensive messages.”

The good news for organizations is that, relatively speaking, work e-mail accounts tend to receive less spam than personal accounts. According to the report, 40 per cent of those who receive e-mail in a work account get no spam at all. Another 26 per cent received less than 10 per cent spam and a further 12 per cent get up to 25 per cent. Of the remaining 21 per cent, half reported more than 60 per cent of the incoming e-mail as spam.

The report also said work e-mailers spend relatively little time on spam, though 10 per cent said they spend 30 minutes or more every day dealing with it. About 40 per cent spend no time at all on spam and 23 per cent spend just a few minutes per day. Another 15 per cent spend from five to 14 minutes and 11 per cent spend from 15 to 29 minutes.

Contrast that to personal accounts, where just under a third said 80 per cent or more of their inbox is spam and 12 per cent said they spend a half-hour or more each day dealing with it.

The differences between home and work

Fallows suggested several reasons why there is a difference between the amount of spam received at home and work. The first is that most personal accounts are more vulnerable to spammers’ basic methods because big Internet service providers, which provide tens of millions of people with their personal e-mail address, are popular targets for those building spam lists.

“People generally behave more cavalierly with their personal screennames than their work screennames, posting them on the Web and using them in more places, thereby making them more likely to be harvested by spammers,” said Fallows.

But the big reason is that the lines of defense against spam are shored up strongly in many companies, where e-mail systems are closed and where IT professionals install filters and other protective measures against spam.

But spam is definitely a problem at work

In work e-mail accounts, spam numbers alone can belie the heart of the story, said Fallows.

“While both the volume of spam and the time spent on spam in work e-mail accounts look relatively small, that relative success against spam comes at a price,” she said. “The costs and consequences of spam in the work e-mail accounts are often hidden from the average worker.”

The following are some stories collected by the Telecommunications Research and Action Centre, a U.S.-based consumer group, about spam in the workplace:

“I am a Lotus Notes Administrator for (a large firm)… I receive on average about 115,000 spam e-mails per day. There is a three fold problem. The first is the fact that it puts a tremendous strain on our servers, with all the extra e-mail. Secondly, it puts a strain on the size of a user’s mailbox, which then impedes their ability to perform their job. Thirdly, the content of those e-mails may contain offensive materials, which can cause some of our users to lose their jobs.”

“I’m responsible for the design and maintenance of the mail system at a 20,000 user ISP in California. After installing spam-detection and filtering software, I’ve learned that approximately 40 per cent of all e-mails we receive match the characteristics of spam, and it accounts for 13 to 15 per cent of all network bandwidth consumed by our mailserver. Of the 12,000 regular e-mail users here, 1,000 of them receive nothing but spam. These statistics make me very angry.”

“I am the technology manager for a commercial collection agency. Spam has become such a huge issue here that I may have to change our published e-mail address as we are now receiving 2,000 to 3,000 spam mails per day. It is costing our company many dollars in system resources and time spent wading through the junk mail to find the legit mail from clients and potential clients.”

“I’m the director of information systems for my company. This makes me responsible for our e-mail. We are a small company and very distributed. We rely on our e-mail as the primary means of doing business with our clients. On a daily basis we receive close to 4,000 e-mail messages. Of those messages, 60 per cent are spam, which our filters are reading through and eliminating as best they can. Some may think that is good but in reality it’s only removing 60 per cent of the spam we receive. Forty per cent, or close to a 1,000 messages, are still getting through to people each day. The combination of bandwidth, hardware, software, and labor is costing us between $100 and $500 a day, every day. Since the first of the year, spam has been getting worse with no end in sight. I am at my wit’s end for what to do.”

“Our business spends about one hour per day erasing spam messages. At $10 per hour (it costs more than that) the annual cost is $2,500 per year. That is not insignificant for a very small business.”

“I am an Avon representative. I went online and placed a bunch of ads trying to get people to e-mail me about selling Avon. Well I keep getting email with the subject “I just read your ad.” I am thinking they are replying and they are not…I open my e-mail trying to run my Avon business and most of the time it is full of junk.”

Fighting spam worth the effort

Fallows said those on the front lines of the spam war — and the people paying the bill to wage that war — can take comfort in the results of a 2003 survey by the American Management Association measuring the positive and negative effects of e-mail in the workplace.

“Keeping spam at bay in the workplace does largely preserve and protect the value of e-mail for workers,” said Fallows. “The good effects of e-mail — things like transmitting information, communicating with far flung colleagues and customers and time to respond — were all rated positively by at least 60 per cent of respondents.”

The report is based on data from a national telephone survey of 2,200 adults, including 1,380 Internet users, conducted in June 2003. It also draws on information compiled by 4,000 first-person narratives about spam solicited since September 2002 by the Telecommunications Research and Action Centre.

To read the entire report, visit

To read the full story, login below.

Not a subscriber?

Start your subscription today!