Death, taxes – and spam in your inbox

After a brief downturn, junk e-mail is back on the rise

It was nice while it lasted. After a five-month break from constantly increasing volumes of unwanted e-mail, spam appears to be poised for a comeback. It seems that spam, like the poor, will always be with us.

A variety of security companies and researchers have been reporting declining volumes of spam through the final quarter of 2010, attributed to a variety of causes. Although the trend was welcomed, nobody really believed that we were witnessing the demise of spam; we have been waiting for the other shoe to drop.

One of the first signs of the brogan hitting the pavement comes in Symantec’s State of Spam and Phishing report for February.

Related coverage:

Spam takes a holiday?

Score one for the good guys in battle against spam

Symantec, which tracks the volume of spam in messages on its Probe Network, reported that the amount of spam was down nearly 16 percent overall in January from December. But after a precipitous drop in volume in late December, volumes began gradually climbing back in early January.

“Symantec expects the spam volume in February to be up month-over-month for the first time since August 2010,” the report states. “Mirroring the increase in spam volume, the spam percentage looks to be rising as well.”

The average percentage of spam in the e-mail stream bottomed out in early January at around 72 percent, according to Symantec, but had climbed back up to 81 percent by the end of the month. If predictions are accurate, we soon could be back in the 90 percent range.

Why the drop in the first place? Partly because law enforcement organizations and companies whose brands have been compromised or whose networks have been slammed have gotten better at shutting down the command-and-control systems of the botnets that so often are responsible for sending out spam. A sharp drop-off in traffic has been reported from several well-known botnets serving up spam.

Probably more significant was last fall’s decision by to get out of the business of being a matchmaker for spammers and botnet owners. Spamit ran a commercial affiliate program that would match spam operations, most notably those promoting the Canadian Pharmacy websites, with botnets that actually send out the e-mails for a cut of the revenues they generate. A statement (in slightly fractured English) posted on the Spamit website in September gave notice that, “Because of the numerous negative events happened last year and the risen attention to our affiliate program we’ve decided to stop accepting the traffic from 1.10.2010,” which is Oct. 1 in European usage.

The site now posts only a short message: “Le roi est mort! Vive le roi!”

Whatever the reason for its demise, killing off the king was more effective than eliminating the individual botnets behind it.

But even though death is one of the few things we can count on in this life, it does not leave a permanent hole. There will always be another king.

Symantec predicted that spam volumes will recover in 2011. “That prediction is holding true thus far, even though it is still very early in the year,” the February report states. “Barring a significant change, the spam percentage drama we covered for the past few months appears to be over.”

Spam is also one of the constants in life.


About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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