Help is on the way to kill 'spam'

Junk email is the scourge of the 21st century. This 'spam' plagues in-boxes globally. Now internet service provider BT claims to have found the solution with the launch of the world's first  'spam buster' writes Phil Simms.

Have you had a spam attack lately? Probably. According to a new report released by the Messaging Anti-Abuse Work Group (MAAWG) as much as 85 per cent, that's 6.5 billion, of all daily emails are junk. These unwanted messages are generated by professional spammers and  'botnets,' which are the PCs of unsuspecting customers that are secretly infected with deceitful software.

These networks of botnets, also known as the  "Zombie Army," generate massive quantities of unwanted spam and are used to attack other machines and websites.  "Junk emails are an ever-increasing problem for all internet users," says J. O'Donnell, MAAWG's senior research scientist.

 "Most spam messages are advertisements from individuals and the occasional business looking for a way to make a fast buck. For service providers, bad filtering not only causes significant customer churn, but the cost to process, deliver and store bad messages easily exceed  £11b a year.'

 "Spam messages are usually sent out using sophisticated techniques designed to mask the messages' true sender and points of origin and, unfortunately, most anti-spam software fail to filter this out," O'Donnell added. Indeed, a lot of current anti-spam software is not fool proof in its ability to filter out unwanted emails.

Despite the best efforts of internet service providers (ISPs), spammers are becoming more adept at avoiding the system. Because they are unable to recognise all junk email, instead of deleting the offending messages and blocking the senders, the messages make it through to users' main in-boxes. But BT claims to have found the solution and is implementing what it says is the world's first fully automated  'spam buster' system designed to detect and block professional spammers using the BT broadband network.

This latest detection system scans millions of emails a day, providing BT with detailed reports on the location and size of spam-related problems originating from the BT network. The anti-spam software also lists the top spammers and reports each subscriber's email activity to a central office in London and notes the time of day and how much bandwidth is wasted on a daily-basis by unwanted or harmful traffic.

 "In a world-first; we're turning the tables on professional spammers and cutting off this scourge of the internet at source", said Stratis Scleparis, of BT Retail. He added:  "We are delighted to work with StreamShield Networks on this innovative approach which both tracks down and reduces spam messages on our network, and at the same time helps our customers to overcome the threat of infection by botnets."

Unsurprisingly spammers often say that spam is not a problem. Just hit 'delete' if you don't want to see it. Many spam messages carry the tagline  "If you don't want to receive further mailings, reply and we'll remove you." But spam is a huge problem. In fact, junk email and junk postings are one of the most serious threats facing the Internet today.

Spam messages waste the Internet's two most precious resources: the bandwidth of long-distance communications links and the time of network administrators who keep the Internet working from day to day. Spam also wastes the time of countless computer users around the planet. Moreover, in order to deliver their messages, the people who send spam mail are increasingly resorting to fraud and computer abuse.

Indeed, fighting spam has become an increasingly serious business. Far gone are the days of funny viral e-mails or hot babes that were merely harmless fun. Spam has reached staggering volumes and the increasingly malicious nature of these messages poses a serious security risk. While in the past spammers relied entirely on sheer volume to achieve their aims, now finding a victim is not just a numbers game anymore.

There are filters and other anti-spam software to overcome, prompting spammers to become more sophisticated, both in terms of avoiding security software but also with them making content much more malign. One new tactic is image spam, where a message is contained in a graphic, which is harder for spam filters to recognise.

Some spam messages may trigger a download that, once installed on a vulnerable computer, secretly spews out even more junk and tries to infect other computers. Moreover, there has been a sharp rise in the spam known as  'phishing'. These messages aim to trick users into divulging identity or financial details, usually by luring them to fake banking sites.

More than 52 per cent of all malicious emails monitored by online security provider MessageLabs during September were phishing-related and this number is set to rise. They also found that one out of every 90 emails sent in the UK contains a virus. BT's software is designed to automatically quarantine and control infected botnet subscribers. BT can then contact them and help them clean their PCs, using a chargeable service.

This will help all of BT's customers by reducing the likelihood of email traffic from BT networks being blocked by other providers and third-party email systems says the compan. It will also help BT to avoid customer loss of botnet-infected PC owners who can no longer send email because they have been blocked by other ISPs.

However, with the automation of the service and the fact that accounts will be quarantined' there remains the risk of mistakes that block out genuine emails and lots of customers who get angry about this. Other ISPs will be monitoring the situation closely to see if the British telecommunications giant can get its new software to work smoothly.

So, what does this mean for those people who do not have BT as their ISP? Indeed, increasingly, scammers are creating emails which are so convincing that they appear to be from legitimate companies, by using corporate logos with links to highly sophisticated fake websites. Despite this, online shoppers and surfers are still not taking adequate precautions to protect themselves online and this has led to concerns that UK consumers are too trusting and likely to believe a tempting email offer.

A survey by Get Safe Online has found that despite the fact that two thirds of internet users, about 19 million people, have been confronted with a suspicious email or website, and more than a third have received bogus emails asking for banking details or advising them of a lottery win or financial inheritance. In addition, the survey found that almost half of the people, would not automatically delete an unusual or unfamiliar email, despite the increase in scamming online and a recorded 5.7 billion phishing emails sent each month, according to the Anti-Phishing Working Group. That's almost one for every person on the planet.

O'Donnell insists  "It is important that consumers are aware of the increase and professionalism of online scammers. You wouldn't let a suspicious sales person into your house and the same amount of caution should be taken when receiving emails from unfamiliar people or companies. He added:  "The economic motivations driving messaging abuse are immense. This has driven spam and phishing to new levels of sophistication. Only time will tell if the BT effort will be able to adapt rapidly enough to the evasive maneuvers that spammers will engage in to avoid this technology."