Shunning Spam

This summer, the Internet will reach a dubious milestone. Half of all email will be spam-junk email.

Pitches for everything from get-rich-quick schemes to black-market Viagra bombard many email addresses.

The amount of spam has doubled in the last year, reported CBS News Sunday Morning contributor David Pogue. Businesses are spending $10 billion a year to weed out the good email from the bad. And consumer anger is off the charts.

At the current rate, email itself may become unusable in a couple of years. It'll be like the old Monty Python skit that gave spam its name, in which the chorus of "spam" nonsense eventually drowns out the real conversation.

So what's wrong with a little junk email? Most people don't lose sleep over the paper junk they get in the mailbox.

"There's a dramatic increase in the amount of spam," said Enrique Salem, spokesman of Brightmail, a company that processes 10 percent of the world's email to scrub out the spam.

"One of the problems with spam is that it's zapping user productivity, and it's costing companies a lot of money," he said. " Also, some of the content that's being received is fraudulent. Basically a scam, they're trying to get you to do something and you'll never get a product or they'll basically steal your money."

So, why don't we just outlaw unsolicited commercial e-mail?

Part of the reason is, not everyone agrees on what spam is.

"Spam is a bit like pornography," said Bob Wienzen, CEO of the Direct Marketing Association. "We know how to recognize it, but we don't know exactly how to describe it."

Wienzen explained that there's a difference between spam and good honest pitches.

"We think that spam is essentially email that misrepresents an offer or misrepresents the originator, or in some way attempts to confuse or defraud people," he said. "The reality is that in spite of all the trouble that email is causing Americans and people all over the world, in fact, a lot of people do respond to email offers and they often respond to offers for things they didn't even know existed from people they didn't know existed. "

The other reason it is difficult to stop spammers is that they are hard to find.

"One of the big challenges is email was designed 25 years ago, and the notion of knowing who was sending it was not something we built into the system," said Salem. "So anybody can send email as if they were anybody else, and so this creates a problem where we may not be able to identify the spammers."

And that's just fine with the spammers.

"I'm a ninth grade educated person, basically one of the most hated people in the world, said Ronnie Scelson. "AOL spent $11 million last year to stop me."

Scelson is proud to admit that he sends out 100 million pieces of spam a day.

"It's a big thing right now," he said. " I've been doing this for years. All of a sudden, in the last six months, it's been a major big thing."

This year may go down in history as the time America started to fight back against spam. Congress is considering at least three anti-spam bills. Each one is designed to make it easier to find and prosecute the people who clog the email system with junk.

Sen. Ron Wyden is a co-sponsor of one of the most promising bills, the Can Spam act.

"The Can Spam act is basically about empowering the consumer, making sure that the consumer can say they don't want to receive this material, and then [imposing] stiff penalties for misrepresentation," said the Oregon senator. "People have got to identify themselves and they can't use all these dodges and ruses to get around it."

Even the Direct Marketing Association likes the senator's idea.

"We think their bill will make it very difficult for spammers to continue to be anonymous," said Weintzen.

Of course, any anti-spam legislation in the United States leaves a loophole as big as the rest of the world. Just ask Ronnie Scelson.

"The government's laws are only as effective as the people following them," said Scelson. "You can pass all the laws you want, but if you're outside the U.S. … Half of my stuff is off shore already … Eighty to 90 percent of all mail is off-shore already. "

The spammers are clever, according to Weintzen. He said they will find every possible way to get around a spam legislation.

Of course, it's not just a legislative battle. There's a technology war on, too. Even Bill Gates gets spam. So Microsoft, America Online and Yahoo are collaborating on a new email standard that makes it harder to fake return addresses.

New spam-catching technologies are in the works, too.

"One of the big things that's going to happen is that you'll be able to identify bulk mail, and you'll be able to compare mail messages that are being sent to AOL, Yahoo, Microsoft," said Brightmail CEO Enrique Salem. "If it's the same message then we will know, if it's not sent by a legitimate sender, it should be set aside, deleted or put into a bulk folder."

If you want to take things into your own hands, you can buy software with names like SpamKiller, SpamCatcher and IhateSpam.

Some of the anti-spam software block incoming email messages if they come from people on a blacklist of known spammers.

Then there are "whitelist" programs. They don't let any email through unless it comes from people who are already in your address book.

In the meantime, here's a tip you can use right now to get spam out of your face.

"Make sure you have multiple email addresses so that if you are going to do things on the Internet, you have one address you give to all these various sites," suggested Salem. "And have another address you use for friends and business."

Before you buy anything advertised by spam, remember this: If only one person in 500,000 responds, the spammer makes a profit.

"There's a long history with new marketing tools attracting people who are out to make a fast buck," said Wienzen. "I think we saw that with early 800-lines or 900-line promotions … But we found solutions to those things and we'll find a solution to spam as well."

Brightmail says the spam problem will be solved by having a combination of legislation that can serve as a deterrent, using technology that identifies good mail from bad mail and making marketers willing to follow basic practices of identifying legitimate mail.

And if they do ever manage to stop the tidal wave, you'll be the first to know about it. Just check your email.