• Spam on the Rise Despite Efforts to Stop Unwanted Email
  • September 23, 2004
  • Law Firm: Reed Smith LLP - Pittsburgh Office
  • Despite a new U.S. law targeting spam, and law enforcement and industry efforts to curb unwanted email messages, the practice is on the rise around the world and most of the culprits operate out of the United States, according to a trio of reports. Sixty-nine percent of home Internet users report that half or more of their email is spam, Consumer Reports states in its September issue, which summarizes a survey conducted by the organization of 2,000 households with Internet access. "The Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing (CAN-SPAM) Act...hasn't reduced spam yet," the magazine concludes. Passed last December, CAN-SPAM criminalizes fraudulent and deceptive email practices. The results from the Consumer Reports survey parallel a workplace survey released earlier this summer.

    Spam filter company Symantec interviewed employees at Fortune 500 companies and concluded 65 percent of Internet email could be identified as spam, as of July 2004. Users receive more than twice the amount of spam they received 10 months ago, and productivity lost to spam is up to 3.1 percent from 1.4 percent last year, Symantec reported.

    International antivirus company Sophos states that most spam -- by far -- originates from the United States. According to the company's recent ranking of the top 12 spam-producing countries, the United States was the source of 42.5 percent of spam, compared with second-listed South Korea, the reported source of 15.4 percent of worldwide spam.

    Antispam efforts this year have been mixed.

    Attorney General John Ashcroft announced in August that a three-month crackdown on cybercrime resulted in 117 criminal complaints involved allegations of fraud, identity theft and other crimes in which consumers are claimed to have lost money. Although those conducting computer crimes often find victims via spam, many in the online sector have criticized the government for not doing more to target spam directly.

    The Direct Marketing Association, which wants to promote the legitimate use of email marketing, is helping to finance Operation Spam Slam, an effort between law enforcement officials and Internet industry members to curb crimes stemming from spam. Some of the Spam Slam funds are being used to target general spam practices as well.

    The first criminal case under the CAN-SPAM Act, brought by the Justice Department in April against several people in Detroit, recently was dismissed at the government's request. The prosecutor in the case stated charges could be brought again after more evidence was developed. The FTC has brought two other cases which are pending under the new law. One is against a Florida man accused of hawking health products; the other accuses an Australian company of using spam to sell human growth hormone products.

    New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer settled a case in July brought against an accused Colorado spammer for $50,000 after originally seeking $20 million. In Virginia, trial was set to start in September against three North Carolina residents accused of criminal violations of Virginia's antispam law, said to be one of the toughest in the Unites States, after a state appellate court ruled the law is constitutional.

    Government officials and Internet service providers are battling surging incentives to profit from spam. Some spammers can make as much as $1 million in one month by eliciting a response rate as small as 0.05 percent, according to Symantec. Three percent of respondents in the Consumer Reports survey admitted ordering a product or service advertised via spam.

    The FTC continues to implement CAN-SPAM, issuing rules this summer banning wireless spam and defining commercial email.

    Private companies bringing civil suits to stop spam include Verizon Wireless and Viagra-manufacturer Pfizer. A judge recently granted Verizon a permanent injunction against a Rhode Island man accused of sending millions of unsolicited text ads to cell phone customers in four states. Pfizer is suing Web sites that illegally use the Viagra name to market products with claimed similar effects.

    In the United Kingdom, the London Internet Exchange (Linx), a network of 150 Internet providers, adopted a code calling for the shut-down of e-commerce sites that receive traffic from spam messages. The group hopes its code will be adopted worldwide.

    Why This Matters: Unwanted email is a growing impediment for businesses trying to legitimately market their products and services online. Some also claim the growth of spam may be discouraging consumers from even using the Internet for online purchasing. A Federal Trade Commission report concludes that a do-not-spam registry will not work. Therefore, unless there is a technological solution soon, consumers may become too resistant to email marketing for it to remain a viable tool.