Sunday, November 9, 2003

Spam caused more economic damage than hackers and viruses last month, despite indications that the amount of unwanted e-mail actually declined.

London-based computer-security firm mi2G said in a report on Thursday that computer outages and lost productivity because of spam led to $10.4 billion in worldwide economic losses in October. Meanwhile, the company said viruses and worms — also known as malware — caused $8.4 billion in losses, while hackers contributed to $1 billion in financial damage worldwide.

“In the beginning, we thought that hackers were more damaging than malware, and malware was more damaging than spam,” said DK Matai, executive chairman of mi2G, in a press release. “October has shown the reverse to be true.”

Recent statistics have shown that the increased economic impact of spam is not necessarily the result of higher spam volumes. Although spam now comprises more than half of all e-mail messages, the amount of spam as a percentage of all e-mail declined in October, according to one antispam group.

Brightmail, a Los Altos, Calif.,-based developer of spam filters, said it scanned about 70 billion e-mail messages in October, and 52 percent were identified as spam. In September, 54 percent of messages scanned were spam.

Analysts think some spammers, rather than flooding e-mail in-boxes with messages, now are focusing on using spam to disrupt the activities of people working to stop them. These disruptions often cause more economic damage than spam alone, analysts said.

In recent months, antispam groups and operators of “blocklists” that identify spammers have been subjected to massive spam attacks that flood servers and crash computer systems. These attacks have forced some blocklists to shut down, and many have had to spend thousands of dollars in extra bandwidth and protection.

“It can still be worthwhile for spam generators to persevere and take antispam groups to task by mounting … attacks on their publicly available spam-block black lists,” mi2G said in its report.

It is not clear whether spam will continue to be more costly than other computer problems. Some analysts said October was an unusually quiet month for viruses and worms, particularly compared with August, when the “SoBig” and “Blaster” viruses caused billions of dollars in damage to computer systems.

Technology companies have tried to tackle the spam problem by developing filters and other techniques to stop unwanted e-mail from reaching in-boxes. Meanwhile, state and federal legislators have been working to pass laws outlawing deceptive and fraudulent spam messages.

But spam remains a nettlesome problem because it can be sent anonymously and because it remains a highly profitable marketing technique.

“The financial gain which motivates spam is too lucrative given the low cost of procuring the addresses and dispatching the hundreds of millions of e-mail spam messages,” mi2G said in its report.

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