Junk e-mails on brink of exceeding legitimate messages

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The Independent Online

From strange offers of free dentures to breathless pledges of "manhood enhancement", junk e-mail has long been a daily annoyance. But now it is threatening to bring cyberspace to a halt.

From strange offers of free dentures to breathless pledges of "manhood enhancement", junk e-mail has long been a daily annoyance. But now it is threatening to bring cyberspace to a halt.

Computing experts said yesterday that the volume of "spam", or unsolicited electronic mail, would exceed that of legitimate e-mail in Britain by the end of the year and was likely to send the global e-mail system into "meltdown".

Two leading junk e-mail filtering companies said that the current level of spam - 45 per cent of all e-mails - would pass 50 per cent within seven months in Britain despite the first concerted fightback by the Government and internet companies.

In America, the largest and most mature internet market, it is estimated that spam has already far exceeded legitimate e-mail. Some 90 per cent of the traffic - about nine billion e-mails a day - received by some internet providers is virtual junk mail.

The level of global spam - ranging from speculative advertisements for debt relief and Viagra pills to hardcore pornography and images of paedophilia - is doubling every six months.

Steve Linford, director of Spamhaus, a co-operative in the UK and one of the largest spam-filtering companies with 140 million clients, said: "The problem is that the biggest internet service providers have ignored this issue for too long. They're only doing something about it now because their customers are furious and they know they are reaching the point where their systems will soon be unable to cope.

"If it is allowed to continue grow at its present rate, within eight to 12 months it will provoke a meltdown in the global e-mail system because servers cannot cope with that amount of traffic."

The grim prediction came as a coalition of the largest e-mail providers in Britain, led by Yahoo!, launched a campaign to persuade computer users that they are unwittingly spreading spam, estimated to cost British business £3bn in lost productivity every year.

The Dump the Junk campaign, backed by the Government, which is introducing a law in November making spam illegal between European Union countries, will urge people to take basic steps, such as not hitting the "unsubscribe" button on junk e-mail. This confirms an address that has been guessed by a computer and can then be sold on to other spammers, eventually provoking a constant stream of spam.

John Webb, European head of marketing for Yahoo! Mail, denied that spam was in danger of swamping legitimate e-mail. He said: "There is no doubt that spam is a nuisance but filtering technology is stopping much of it. Our research shows, however, that many British surfers are helping to perpetuate the problem."

Unheard of five years ago, the junk e-mail industry is dominated by a hard core of about 180 companies, which send about 90 per cent of spam. The "spammers" work by running computer programs to guess e-mail addresses or by trawling the internet for e-mail addresses.

Vast mailshots are then sent out with each spammer capable of generating up to 50 million e-mails in each spam attack. Each of the companies advertised pays the spammer a fee of about £15 for each order it places. Although the reply rate is tiny - barely one in a million - the sheer scale of the operation makes spamming a potentially lucrative pursuit.

How to avoid spam

* Never reply by hitting the "unsubscribe" button or clicking on a link. Far from removing you from the spammer's list, it will confirm that your e-mail address is genuine and make it a saleable commodity.

* Set up a decoy e-mail address for use in websites and chatrooms which will then receive most of your junk mail. Restrict the use of your personal e-mail address to friends and family. Treat it like your telephone number: do not reveal it unsolicited to strangers.

* When giving an e-mail address on a public site do so in a way that will thwart programs that scan the internet for real addresses - for example, rather than bertsmith@hotmail.com write Bert Smith at Hotmail dot c o m.

* Use junk mail filters provided by internet service providers. Do not forward spam to friends - they will probably be added to the list.

* Do not fall for "personalised" or spoof subject lines. The object of the spammer is to con people into opening the mail and will use any means available. Typical ruses include "Hey, how are you?", "Urgent and Confidential", and "I have money for you".

* Unplug your computer and buy a carrier pigeon.