Spam's supply and demand

During the economic downturn, there is at least one business sector that seems to be thriving. Unfortunately, it is mostly illegal, unethical and unpleasant.

In the animal world, some species are blessed with an adaptability and resiliency that seems to ensure their survival. For example, it's been suggested that in the event of a nuclear holocaust, the cockroach would be the only living thing to survive. That is impressive, but it doesn’t make it any easier to love a cockroach.

In the online world, spammers fill an ecological niche equivalent to that of the cockroach. Stomp them and spray them as you will, the little buggers just keep coming back.

The spam industry has taken some hits during the past year. In May 2008, the anti-spam organization KnujOn issued a report that identified 20 registrars — companies that issue domain names — as responsible for 90 percent of the domains associated with high levels of spam or other abusive activities. Only two of the top 10 offenders from the original list made it onto the most recent list, released by KnujOn this month. The others went out of business or cleaned up their acts. Unfortunately, the new list shows that a new group of registrars has taken their place at an even greater level of concentration, with 10 registrars responsible for 83 percent of spam domains.

And the amount of spam is not decreasing. Spam volumes took a sharp dive in November with the shutdown of McColo, a hosting company based in San Jose, Calif., that was identified as the source of a lot of unwanted e-mail messages. However, according to Symantec’s State of Spam report for February, spam quickly rebounded from a low of about 50 percent of all messages scanned at the mail gateway immediately after the shutdown to about 80 percent.

“Spam volumes have continued to climb toward their pre-McColo shutdown levels, proving that as long as spammers continue to see a return on their investments, spam messages will continue to be sent in huge volumes,” Symantec said.

In the final analysis, spam is an economic problem more than a technical one. As long as there are people who believe they can buy cheap luxury goods and drugs online and that the widows of Nigerian officials are willing to share fortunes with them, the spam will keep on coming.

To complicate matters, it doesn't cost much to send e-mail messages or set up phony Web sites, and the volume is huge, so the margin for achieving profits can be tiny. A relative handful of incautious people can ensure that the rest of us continue to be inundated. The economic downturn isn’t likely to help. As finances get worse, there are liable to be even more people willing to believe that maybe — just maybe — their e-mail address really did win a lottery.

Successfully fighting spam will require a combination of technology, aggressive law enforcement, education and, above all, self control. Good luck.

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