Federal law hasn't stopped spammers from spamming

Spammers have not changed their wicked ways despite the federal CAN-SPAM law that went into effect Jan. 1.

Antispam software vendors say the volume of unsolicited commercial e-mail peaked in late December.

'Even spammers take a holiday,' said Avner Amram, executive vice president of Commtouch Inc. of Mountain View, Calif.

Some observers have recorded a slight decline in overall spam volume. But they say it is too early to tell whether spammers are waiting to judge the impact of the new law, or whether the dip reflects the end of the holiday marketing season.

'We have noticed a decline in volume after other major events, such as legislation going into effect, arrests of spammers or lawsuits being filed,' said Lori Sinsley, spokeswoman for MessageLabs Inc. of New York.

Many new spam messages still use the deceptive techniques outlawed by the Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing Act of 2003.

'A lot of the things being sent now are breaking the federal law,' said Enrique Salem, president of Brightmail Inc. of San Francisco. 'We have not seen any changes yet.'

CAN-SPAM specifies civil and criminal penalties for spammers who send unidentified, misidentified or misleading e-mail advertisements.

But Commtouch's Amram said there has been no change so far in the percentages or types of deceptions.

'Spammers did not stop using their regular tricks,' he said. The law requires e-mail advertisers to identify their messages as advertisements and to include valid addresses. 'Very few are doing it,' he said. 'Almost none.'

Many tricks available

Viagra was one of the most common spam topics in 2003. Commtouch documented more than 50 ways spammers pushed the little blue pill past antispam filters with spelling variations and odd punctuation.

Spam is one of the Federal Trade Commission's top enforcement priorities, staff attorney Brian Huseman said. 'We have brought about 60 spam cases so far under existing laws,' Huseman said. 'We will continue to pursue them using every available tool, including CAN-SPAM.'

The act, however, did not give FTC any additional resources. 'It's very difficult to find spammers,' Huseman said. 'It is very easy to hide your identity in an e-mail.'

FTC can go after the business being advertised as well as the advertiser sending the spam, but 'it is still very difficult to find who is responsible,' Huseman said.

In one case, it took more than two dozen subpoenas before the commission could track down an entity that could be sued, he said.

Some critics have called the law the 'I Can Spam' act, predicting that commercial mass e-mail can continue so long as it is identified as such.

Brightmail's Salem was more sanguine. 'I don't subscribe to the school that marketers will send more spam,' he said. 'We believe that over the next two or three years we will be able to keep inboxes from being clogged with spam.'

Despite the legislation, he said, better technology is needed to identify unwanted e-mail, as well as more cooperation by legitimate direct marketers and end users.

'When all of these factors come together, the economics for spamming won't work any more,' he said.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.


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