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The Spam Paradox

desember 14, 2011 — by Øyvind Frøland0

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If I say spam you’ll say Nigeria, Viagra, Cialis, virus or phishing. Or something closely related to cybercrime and fraud. It  is true that spam is used in fraud. Kaspersky recently reported a 20-fold increase in fraudulent spam in Q3 2011. However, e-mail spam is also a widely used advertising technique adopted by legitimate businesses. In fact, your spam filter provider may be spamming, as a service for their business customers, or even worse, as a marketing effort for themselves.

Who is spamming you

Everyone, including multi national businesses. Your e-mail provider, energy company, phone company, your neighbourhood friendly local pharmacy or your favorite newspaper; they are all using spam as a weapon to get their message out to you. You have not asked for these messages, you even have a spam filter to remove them; they are unwanted. Nevertheless, spammers find their way to your inbox. If you ask these businesses why they use spam in their marketing effort, however a legitime business, they will reply that there must have been a mistake. Or that you have opted in at some point. And then they lie.

All spammers lie

Spammers know what they are doing. On a monthly basis I receive phone calls from well established businesses in Norway. They call because they have been blacklisted, and they have been blacklisted because they are spamming. And they know they are spamming. They have mass-distributed unsolicited e-mail to purchased mailing lists. When confronted with what, how and why, they always give the same answer, at least the first time: “there must have been a mistake, we did not know this classified as spam”. And that’s a lie. We know that’s a lie, because two months later they will start spamming again, despite being well informed. Then they hire expensive lawyers in a meaningless attempt to resolve the new blocklisting. Why do they go to these efforts?

Why spam is deployed as a marketing effort

Spam is cheap, very cheap. According to Wikipedia: “Spamming remains economically viable because advertisers have no operating costs beyond the management of their mailing lists, and it is difficult to hold senders accountable for their mass mailings. Because the barrier to entry is so low, spammers are numerous, and the volume of unsolicited mail has become very high.”

Spam is probably the cheapest way of advertising there is. The marginal cost of sending another 100 000 messages to another 100 000 recipients is close to zero.

The paradox

Spammers will keep spamming unless they are punished for their actions; the costs are seemingly borne by someone else. According to Wikipedia, “The costs of spam, such as lost productivity and fraud, are borne by the public and by Internet Service Providers, which have been forced to add extra capacity to cope with the deluge”.

Spam legislation refers to laws regulating spam, and spamming has been the subject of legislation in many jurisdictions. In Norway we have one law regulating spam; “Markedsføringsloven“, or “The Marketing Control Act” in English. Section 15 states that spamming private e-mail addresses is prohibited withouth consent of the recipient. It is in effect an attempt to eliminate some of the cost that is being borne by the public AND the ISPs.

When spammers no longer are allowed to spam private e-mail addresses, they can only spam business addresses, and it is the businesses that are the spammers in the first place, in their attempt to sell something. Spammers are spamming spammers, generating a need for more effective and more expensive spam filtering. The cost is increasingly borne by the spammers, and their “marketing efforts” drive the cost up even further.

Laws aside; nobody wants these messages. They are unwanted by everyone, including the spammers. Marketers have spammers on their payroll while IT pay someone to filter their organization’s e-mail. And marketers beware; being caught spamming can severely cripple a business operation, as valuable information all of a sudden may not reach existing customers, suppliers and other business contacts, due to a blocklisting.

How do you avoid these pitfalls?

Just say no to spam

We, and our customers, neither send nor receive spam. We do not tolerate spam, even if it adheres to specifications in laws and regulations. Spam is still spam. In addition to using blocklists such as Spamhaus, we also maintain our own blocklist, along with a strict no-tolerance policy.

In turn this enables us to deliver both a highly effective, low cost hosted spam filter and a smtp relay service, the latter for those with in-house servers and bothered with blocklisted SMTP-servers provided by their ISP. Our technology and enforced policies ensures that e-mail still is a viable and effective mean of communication. Using our service, however, demands that you say no to spam; stop sending spam and you will stop receiving spam. Say no to spam and you cut the cost of e-mail handling and you ensure that your e-mail gets through to your business contacts and existing customers. Say yes to spam and you will face higher costs of your business operation and cripple e-mail as a mean of communicating with your customers.