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Source: The Columbus Dispatch

Posted on March 3, 2007

      Doomsday predictions that 2007 will be the year that unwanted e-mail, called spam, floods inboxes at unheard-of rates are coming true.

      Probably 80 percent of the e-mail that makes its way to Pittsburgh consulting firm McCrory & McDowell is caught in a spam filter, said Laurie Pemrick, who manages the firm's computer systems.

      If she counted the rest of the digital trash - offers for cheap medications, sexual enhancements and get-rich stock quotes - that slips past the computer filters and into employees' inboxes, the figure would be much higher. "I think that's true for our company and that's the industry average," she said.

      Technology experts say she's right.

      Computer-security gurus as well as bloggers are noting that spam has doubled since this time last year. The bombardment, which began around the Christmas holiday, a seasonal high point for spam, isn't letting up this year.

      Much of this new onslaught, and what experts are saying is the most threatening, is known as "image" or "picture" spam, which fools filters designed to look for trigger words such as "stock" or "prescription."

      Roughly 65 percent to 70 percent of spam is showing up in this new format, allowing it to slip by filters undetected.

      The flood of spam started last year when Web assaults and spam climbed 2 1 /2 times from 2005 levels, according to security software firm SonicWall Inc., based in Sunnyvale, Calif.

      Managing the volume of spam is "a Catch-22 for IT people," Pemrick said.

      That's because the more they try to block the bad stuff, the more legitimate e-mail doesn't get through.

      It's a quagmire for computer managers who say that both scenarios make for complaints from unhappy employees who don't have time to sift through folders chock-full of hundreds of email, wanted and unwanted.

      Spam accounted for $17 billion worth of lost productivity in the United States in 2005, according to Ferris Research in San Francisco. Around the world, the research firm said the price tag totaled $50 billion.

      To avoid these electronic productivity killers, Pemrick said she ends up frequently changing the e-mail addresses of employees who are bombarded with spam. Although she couldn't quantify just how much the 75-member firm loses from sifting through unwanted e-mail each year, "I think there's a lot of productivity loss," she said.

      Most of the spam cluttering inboxes is generated in the United States, according to a report from Sophos, a computer-security firm with operations near Boston. More than 34 percent of all spam in the world comes from U.S.-based computers, said the firm that produces anti-spam products.

      Most spam, about 90 percent, according to Sophos, that is caught by a filter is sent from a "zombie" computer that is taken over remotely by hackers and used unknowingly to send out the junk e-mail.

      "The overriding goal of spam today is profit," said Gleb Budman, senior director of e-mail security at Sonic-Wall. And an increasing amount is intended to enable theft, he added.

      Alan Gilbert has seen an uptick in annoying e-mails since December and the Virginia-based marketing and communications consultant has taken matters into his own hands.

      He's vigilant about picking and choosing the e-mail he reads.

      Gilbert sticks to his own AOL account as much as possible and uses his clients' corporate e-mail, which often are riddled with spam, only when he must.

      "I'm pretty conservative about what I look at," Gilbert said. E-mail from people he doesn't know often is sent directly into the trash. Still, security experts say he's fighting an uphill battle.

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