E-mailed spam, or unsolicited junk messages promoting products and services, has become more than just an annoyance for most businesspeople. Spam reduces worker productivity, jams e-mail systems and creates bandwidth losses, costing the worldwide business community as much as an estimated $20 billion annually.

Each year, tens of billions of e-mail spam messages barrage inboxes throughout cyberspace — and information technology (IT) experts predict the growth of spam will continue despite numerous e-mail and software programs designed to prevent it.

“Many years ago, [spam] was 50 percent of the e-mail traffic that’s going through and I’d estimate it’s 80 percent now of total e-mail traffic,” says Jim Kelton, consultant and president of Altius IT in Santa Ana, Calif.

Marketing Gone Bad
The increase in spam can be attributed to the low cost and potentially high return for spammers looking to market to the masses.

“The cost of sending spam is next to nothing and the return is great and so from a marketing perspective, any time you can spend little and get a huge return, it incentive-izes people and advertisers to do more of that form of marketing,” Kelton says.

Spam can give legitimate e-mail marketing a bad name, says Helen Kennedy, marketing consultant and president of Kennedy Consulting Services, Union City, Calif. E-mail is an important and cost-effective way to communicate and advertise, as some building service contractors know from experience, but marketing e-mails can be mistaken for spam, giving legitimate marketers a bad rap.

Legislation, in the form of the CAN-SPAM Act of 2003, has attempted to address the situation, and was designed to provide guidelines for proper use of e-mail.

“If we are doing our jobs correctly, we would only be sending these e-mail messages to people who have opted-in and have given us permission to send them mail,” Kennedy says. “Additionally, the law requires us to give people an easy way to unsubscribe, and we are required to stop sending messages.”

Spam, however, is not from legitimate marketers that have been granted permission to e-mail people — it’s unsolicited and unwanted. And the reality is, most spammers do not adhere to the law.

One way spammers are circumventing the CAN-SPAM Act is by sending mass amounts of spam e-mail from offshore locations not bound by U.S. law, Kelton says.

Canning Spam
So how can building service contractors combat spam? There’s no way to eliminate it completely, says Kelton.

“It’s almost like trying to eliminate junk mail that comes in through the U.S. Postal Service,” Kelton says. “You can ask not to be on the list but you’ll still get it anyway.”

However, there is hope. Plenty of programs are available to help block spam from getting to people’s inboxes.

There is no one answer to the problem, as solutions should be tailored for a company’s size and needs. There are two thrusts to control spam, Kelton says: One on the human side and one on the technology side.

Kelton recommends treating an e-mail address like any other form of personally identifiable information, such as credit card numbers and driver’s license numbers. That will make users more selective in how and when they use or give out their e-mail addresses.

Spammers also use e-mail harvesting techniques to obtain lists of addresses for bulk mail purposes. Because of that, people might want to think twice before posting responses to blogs using their email addresses or making their addresses available online in other ways, Kelton suggests.

“Sometimes spammers use e-mail harvesters — what they do is search Internet Web sites trying to find e-mail IDs, and then they go out there and electronically collect them and then they have a source for sending e-mail messages.”

Many companies display employee e-mail addresses on their Web sites, but that is a target for harvesters, so Kelton advises using Web site design programs that make it more difficult for harvesters to grab addresses.

On the technology side of things, Kelton addresses businesses in two groups: Small and large.

Smaller firms likely use personal e-mail addresses from providers such as Yahoo!, Hotmail or America OnLine (AOL) that are free or minimally priced. Those providers will have some type of spam filter or blocker built into the service, Kelton says, and have ways to report spam or move it to a junk folder. A possible drawback is that valid e-mails are trapped in the filters and unable to reach the intended receiver.

Middle- to large-sized companies have the responsibility of managing spam internally, using on-staff IT professionals or IT consultants. Those IT people need to find and implement anti-spam software or use an outside service to filter messages before they reach e-mail servers, Kelton says.

“With the outside services, they’re going to trap e-mail messages they think are valid and maybe through a Web browser, you can go in and periodically check it just to make sure that you’re not having some valid e-mail messages involved,” he says.

Companies can choose from a suite of products, in which all software programs — including anti-spam, anti-virus, anti-spyware and pop-up blockers — are from one vendor, or they can pick and choose the best products for them from different vendors.

Rules of Thumb
E-mail users may never again see a day when their inboxes will be spam-free, but there are ways to prevent spam from being a bigger problem. If you do receive unwanted spam from unrecognizable senders, do not reply back asking to opt out of the message, Kelton says.

“All that is doing is telling the spammer that your e-mail ID is active, and that may just generate more spam for you,” he says.

New and improved ways of dealing with spam and spammers are constantly being evaluated, including validating senders before their e-mail is delivered, Kelton says. For now, though, “the bad guys are taking advantage of a lack of standards” and spam is evolving.

“What [spammers] are doing more recently is, instead of including any text at all, it’s a graphic image, so when you look at the message, you can read it but the software that’s trying to protect you can’t read it because it’s a graphic, not text,” Kelton says.

Spam will continue to multiply in the years to come, with no obvious solution in sight. All BSCs can do is try to keep up with spammers’ methods and techniques.