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Businesses Besieged by Spam

Junk E-mail can be ''filtered'' inexpensively, but the costs don't stop there.

From the Nigerian civil servant hoping to move millions of dollars to offshore havens (with your help) to pitchmen hawking herbs and procedures that promise improbable anatomical transformation, junk E-mails now waste a few precious minutes of everyone’s day.

Often referred to as “spam,” this online corollary to telemarketing is more than just an annoyance — it may represent a serious financial challenge for your company. San Francisco-based Ferris Research estimates that spam will cost U.S. organizations a total of more than $10 billion this year in lost productivity and computing resources as well as the hard dollars spent on E-mail administrators and help-desk personnel. Those numbers do not include the cost of antispam filtering software, which, despite an annual cost of only about $5 to $10 per user, are used by less than 5 percent of companies with 10,000 or more employees.

Washington, D.C.-based National Cooperative Bank installed a software filter to block spam last year and saw its inbound E-mail volume drop by half. “I was just amazed,” says Russell Schofield, managing director of IT. Even though the filter “works like a charm,” it still doesn’t catch everything. (One problem: since the bank is involved in the mortgage business, it’s reluctant to block any E-mails with that as the subject, and low-rate mortgage come-ons are a spam staple.)

Analyst estimates of corporate spam don’t range quite as high as Schofield’s experience. Ferris says 15 percent to 20 percent of inbound E-mail at U.S. corporations is spam. At that rate, Jupiter Research estimates that an employee will delete about 2,600 pieces of spam this year alone. Yet because Jupiter defines spam very strictly, the actual number of what most people would deem junk E-mail messages may be half again as high.

Moreover, while spam typically refers to unsolicited commercial E-mail, companies are realizing that so-called friends-and-family spam may soon be a problem of equal proportions. A survey conducted by Market Fact’s e.Nation for filter-provider SurfControl Plc estimates that employees receive up to 30 chain letters, jokes, video clips, or similar E-mail messages from someone they know every week — more than 1,500 per year.

While employees may want these messages, their attachments make them far bigger bandwidth hogs than commercial spam — and far more likely to introduce viruses or content that poses a liability threat to the firm.

Legislation has been proposed several times, and current bills before Congress may stand a good chance of passing if the flurry of lobbying activity by mail marketers is any indication.

Until Congress acts, however, the best method for companies to combat spam is still a software filter. Filters like those provided by U.K.-based SurfControl combine blacklists of known spammers, lexical methods (sniffing E-mails for certain combinations of words), and artificial intelligence to stop spam from reaching employee mailboxes.

Filters have also grown more sophisticated — captured spam can be segregated into messages to be deleted, messages that are kept to be checked by humans, and, in the case of bandwidth-heavy friends-and-family spam, messages that are simply delivered after business hours. “The goal [of a filter] is the minimum amount of human intervention, but the maximum amount of accuracy,” says Surf- Control senior vice president for marketing Susan Getgood.

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