- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 23, 2004

America Online in the past month managed to dramatically cut down on the amount of spam its subscribers are receiving, thanks to new technology and a flurry of lawsuits.

But many analysts are warning that AOL’s success will lead to more spam being sent to other, more vulnerable e-mail users.

“As business and enterprises are able to stop spammers from penetrating their network, the spammers will leave those ISPs alone and concentrate their fire on others,” said Ray Everett-Church, chief privacy officer for TurnTide, a Conshohocken, Pa., firm that sells antispam products. “These systems that can’t afford to take antispam measures will get more and more.”

AOL, the world’s largest Internet service provider (ISP), said complaints of spam from its subscribers fell from 12.7 million Feb. 20 to 6.8 million March 17. Meanwhile, the total volume of all e-mail sent to AOL addresses dropped from 2.6 billion to 1.9 billion during the period, an indication, the company said, of fewer spammers targeting AOL users.

“These are the most positive numbers we’ve seen in two years of spam fighting,” said AOL spokesman Nicholas Graham.

The Sterling, Va., company credited the release of its latest software, which includes new spam-fighting tools, as well as recent lawsuits and criminal charges filed against suspected spammers. In January, Virginia officials indicted two North Carolina men, accusing them of sending millions of messages to AOL users. And on March 10, AOL joined Microsoft, Earthlink and Yahoo to announce lawsuits against hundreds of spammers across the country, the first major lawsuits under the federal Can-Spam Act, which went into effect in January.

“The encouraging thing is that it shows that a combination of technology and law can drag down the amount of spam,” said Matthew Prince, chief executive officer of Unspam, a Chicago company that has consulted on antispam legislation. “They must have touched some people who mattered.”

But Mr. Prince and others in the spam-blocking business said spammers who have failed to reach AOL users will simply target their e-mail elsewhere.

“Big ISPs can afford to enforce antispam laws,” Mr. Prince said. “You just don’t get the same benefit if you are a small ISP. I’d be terrified if I were a smaller ISP.”

Most experts cautioned that AOL’s success does not mean spammers are stopping altogether. Most recent studies show that unwanted e-mail is at record highs.

Brightmail, a San Francisco company that filters e-mail, said spam made up a record 62 percent of the 91 billion e-mail messages it scanned in February.

Meanwhile, the nonprofit Pew Internet and American Life Project said in a report last week that the Can-Spam Act has not resulted in a drop in spam for most people and that 29 percent of e-mail users are using e-mail less because of spam.

But some spam-fighting advocates said they have seen anecdotal evidence that many spammers are giving up. Techniques used to get past spam filters are becoming more sneaky and desperate, and spammers are earning less money.

“What they’re trying to do is squeeze the last drop of profit out of this business,” said Paul Judge, chief of CipherTrust, an e-mail security company.

“It’s definitely a dying business model.”

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