Report: Spam’s Effectiveness Gives It Staying Power

Spam e-mail is likely to remain a scourge for Internet users for one simple reason, says a new report — it still works.

A survey by research firm the Radicati Group and messaging security vendors Mirapoint found that some 11 percent of Web users had purchased a product by clicking through on spam e-mails. Many of those users never got what they thought they were buying, with 9 percent of those surveyed admitting that they fell victim to spam-based scams.

Reducing the effectiveness of spam in generating e-commerce would probably be a simple solution, one that might prove far more likely to work than the current wave of spam filters, address verification programs and law enforcement efforts aimed at spammers.

Market for Spam

“If people stop buying products from spam, spam would probably go away,” said Marcel Nienhuis, market analyst at the Radicati Group. “User education and implementation of smart practices when dealing with spam, such as not opening unidentified messages, will be crucial in discouraging spammers.”

Even those who don’t complete purchases through spam messages are likely to at least click through the messages to find out more. The survey of 800 Internet users — two-thirds of them business users — found 39 percent click on embedded links within unwanted commercial e-mail messages, with more than half saying that doing so appeared to result in receiving more spam in the future.

Such links often serve to verify that an address is active and often leads to spammers targeting the address with more messages.

The authors of the report said the survey revealed that despite the place that spam has taken in popular culture, with such e-mail considered a scourge by most computer users, many people are still uninformed about how such messages should be handled.

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“More than half of e-mail users do not understand the harmful effects of clicking on any links in spam e-mail, even the ‘unsubscribe’ link often is a trap,” said Bethany Mayer, chief marketing officer at Mirapoint. “Only a combination of federal legislation, user education and effective technology will help us stamp out the problem of spam.”

The survey results are shocking given how much effort has gone into educating users about spam from the likes of AOL, Yahoo and MSN, which have made consumer education a key part of their multi-pronged attacks on spam, which also includes new technology rollouts and cooperation with law enforcement to track down abusers of the system.

The data must be a source of frustration for those who have been waging high-profile battles against spam. Microsoft recently began using its Sender ID specification to limit how much spam reaches Hotmail users, and AOL has made spam protection a key part of its marketing campaign, with one TV spot showing a grateful user showing up at AOL headquarters to thank those who have helped curb spam.

However, much of that effort is based on the premise that users detest spam and want it eradicated, an idea that could be called into question by the presence of so many willing spam participants.

The survey did not specify which types of spam messages were most likely to draw positive responses from users.

Making the Distinction

The fact that a full 9 percent of the survey respondents said they had lost money when trying to buy through spam could be a chilling stat for major e-commerce players, who could see such users be turned off from buying online altogether.

However, Forrester Research analyst Carrie Johnson said that while the e-commerce industry needs to be on guard against spam abuse, most users are savvy enough to make distinctions between legitimate e-commerce and true spam.

“Scammers and spammers have been operating in the shadows of e-commerce for years without disrupting growth or undermining public trust in the medium,” Johnson told the E-Commerce Times.

Still, she said, the fact that spam still works is a reminder that thousands of new computer users come onto the Internet every day and that more public education efforts might be needed to keep the Web safe.

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