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Despite filters, spam continues to wage war on businesses

Businesses are using more spam filters, but unwanted emails continue to cost them big bucks in lost productivity.

Email in-boxes full of spam are costing companies money and driving employees crazy.

Nucleus Research Inc., a Wellesley, Mass.-based firm, found that U.S. companies are losing $71 billion annually to lost productivity caused by spam.

The findings were based on a Nucleus Research survey of 849 business users of email. Users reported that they spend 1.2% of their time dealing with spam in their in-boxes.

Rebecca Wettemann, vice president of research at Nucleus, said spam filters are getting better at blocking spam. In a 2004 Nucleus survey, users reported they lost 3.1% of their time to spam, as opposed to 1.2 % today. And the annual cost to employees dropped from $1,934 per employee in 2004 to $712 today.

"What we're seeing is filtering has better addressed the problem than it was in 2004. Unfortunately, we're still seeing two out of every three spam messages actually getting into inboxes."

The reason: Spammers are getting smarter. According to Framingham, Mass.-based research firm IDC, nearly 97 billion emails will hit inboxes this year -- and more than 40 billion of them will be spam. The problem is so out of control that for the first time, the volume of spam is expected to outpace that of legitimate person-to-person email. Adding fuel to the fire is the increase in image-based spam. By embedding their marketing messages in attached, randomized .gif or .jpg image files instead of in plain text, many spammers manage to elude basic filters. Some reports suggest that image-based spam accounts for nearly 30% of all spam worldwide.

Zaps productivity

George Bock, senior director of IT at Sole Technology Inc., implemented a spam-filtering solution from Symantec Corp. earlier this year. Before that, the $200 million Lake Forest, Calif.-based footwear manufacturer was relying on the spam-filtering features of Microsoft Exchange, which just wasn't enough.

"First and foremost, every day every employee had to figure out which emails were legitimate and not legitimate. They would spend 15 to 30 minutes a day cleaning up the messages that would come through," Bock said. "The other aspect was the impact on our Exchange environment. It was killing productivity on the servers. Basically, we were working overtime to keep up with the amount of email coming in for the amount of mailboxes we had."

Bock saw lost productivity in the amount of time it took emails to open or even arrive, due to all the strain on the Exchange server.

Basically we were working overtime to keep up with the amount of email coming in.

George Bock, senior director of IT, Sole Technology Inc.

Since going with Symantec, the amount of spam coming through has dropped to two or three a week per in-box.

"The response has been absolutely phenomenal from the employee base. They don't have to wade through it anymore," Bock said.

Taking away the headaches associated with spam is important, not just from a productivity perspective. Employees seem near the breaking point, based on some of their responses to the Nucleus survey.

When asked to suggest criminal penalties for individuals convicted of sending spam, many found the options of jail time insufficient. They chose "other" and then typed in suggestions such as the death penalty, slow hanging, public flogging, psychological assessment and other suggestions "that are inappropriate to print," according to Nucleus.

Wettemann said there are other costs beyond lost productivity reported by users.

"There are a lot of things," she said. "Every time a user clicks on a virus, every time they call an IT help desk for help with spam. There's the time mailbox administrators are spending on managing and archiving messages. There are a lot of associated costs."

Wettemann said spam filters can't win the war on spam alone.

"What I hope is we'll have a broader recognition of what the real problem is," she said.

Wettemann said she hopes the government will take regulatory action to force Internet service providers to take a more active role in managing spam traffic.

Let us know what you think about the story; email

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