By Jane Weaver Health editor
msnbc.com

The plea from the widow of a usurped Nigerian despot. The offer to earn thousands of dollars working from home. A lure to look at disturbing pornographic images. If you use e-mail, you’ve almost certainly received a few or thousands of unwanted messages like these. By all accounts, it’s getting worse. What can you do to can the spam?

More than half of Americans use e-mail, according to the U.S. Commerce Department. For many of them it’s almost impossible to exaggerate how annoying and time-consuming the torrent of unsolicited e-mail has become. Our in-boxes are drowning in unwelcome spam messages, which play upon our basic desires to save money, make money, get something for nothing or beautify our bodies.

There’s been an explosion of these virtual lies and come-ons over the last 18 months. Internet service provider Earthlink estimates a spam increase of at least 500 percent in the last year-and-a-half as shady businesses have taken advantage of the virtually cost-free aspect of sending out tens of thousands cyber pitches.

Of all the e-mails sent each day, an estimated 41 percent are spam, up from 8 percent in 2001, according to data from Brightmail, an anti-spam technology company in San Francisco. The number of spam messages sent this year could exceed 1 trillion, according to projections from research firm IDC.

Spam will cost U.S. businesses over $10 billion this year and is responsible for $4 billion in lost productivity, the San Francisco market research firm Ferris Research estimates in a recent report.

Nobody really knows how much money spammers are making off consumers but the tsunami of unwelcome commercial e-mail has become so obnoxious that the direct marketing industry is taking steps to get spam under control.

Fact is, spam is starting to hurt the legitimate direct marketing industry. That is, legitimate e-mail messages sent to a specific audience from reputable businesses offering real deals and information about their goods or services earned $1.26 billion in profits in 2002, up from $948 million in 2001, according to the Direct Marketing Association. But as consumers burn out from deleting all the spam choking their e-mail boxes, response rates are declining.

With the direct marketing industry now throwing its weight behind federal legislation, it’s possible that national laws or regulation addressing spam could pass this year. The DMA, which previously opposed regulation, is pushing to have federal legislation passed this year or next that would fine violators of proposed spam restrictions $11,000 per e-mail. Legislation is also underway in Congress that would require companies to list a valid return address so consumers could request to be removed from mailing lists.

But help from the government in the war on spam is in the future. For now, the Internet’s leading access providers such as AOL, Microsoft’s MSN and Earthlink are getting a lot more aggressive in battling spam.

There is also a growing brigade of commercial anti-spam software products that let consumers block pornography, promotions, get-rich-quick schemes and bulk e-mailings.

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There are numerous anti-spam products, costing between $10 and $40 or more a year, which can be downloaded to a user’s computer. Depending on the software, the products work with Microsoft Outlook, Hotmail or other Web-based mail services. None of them are compatible with AOL’s proprietary mail function and some of them need older formats of e-mail and require a user to download message from a mail server just to look at it. So they’re not always the best bet for an average, non-techie consumer.

“People shouldn’t have to have an engineering job to use a spam filter,” said Ed English, chief executive of SpamSubtract, a software which sells for $29.95 and works with Microsoft Outlook, Outlook Express, and Eudora.

In fact, some the major ISPs are rolling out new technologies that will do more of the filtering work for you.

In the new MSN 8.0, Microsoft has implemented an “intelligent” junk mail filter in the client software which automatically learns what a user considers to be spam by reading the subjects and headers of deleted mail. Say a person consistently deletes e-mail containing the word “viagra” without ever reading it, MSN’s junk mail filter will soon begin blocking all e-mails related to the sex drug before they reach the in-box.

“We’re doing a lot of things that don’t require consumer intervention,” said Larry Grothaus, MSN Product Manager. “We’re taking the work out of the customers hands.”

In April, Earthlink will release a tool called “Spam Blocker” for its subscribers which will “block virtually 100 percent” of unwanted junk e-mail, said Rob Kaiser, vice president of narrowband marketing. The filter will bounce back e-mail to anyone who isn’t in a user’s address book. The suspicious e-mail sender will be asked to add their names to the user’s list, with the assumption that spammers don’t want to include their legitimate addresses, or to type short message.

On Feb. 20, AOL published a “Dear Member” letter on its Welcome Screen declaring spam “public enemy No. 1”, the first time the online giant has addressed the spam issue frankly with its subscribers.

In the newest version of AOL, the nation’s largest Internet service provider, a “report spam” button has been included on every in-box so that its 27 million U.S. subscribers can target and filter bulk e-mails from specific addresses or domains. Since the button was added, AOL members have been reporting more than 5 million spam e-mails every day, said spokesman Nicholas Graham. Members can also use new, expanded mail controls to create a “stop and go” list of which e-mail addresses to allow through and which to block.

AOL will be adding other spam-blocking tools and filters this year, as well as looking to the law to fight unsolicited e-mail. The online service says its improved anti-spam filters are now blocking nearly 800 million pieces of junk e-mail a day.

But powerful filters only go so far. Blocking specific e-mails or domains are a temporary fix because spammers are constantly changing their addresses to avoid detection.

The reality is, spam is like weeds in a garden. You can pull them up, but others sprout if there is fertile ground.

As long as gullible e-mail users respond to spam messages, the scammers will continue to blast in-boxes.

Experts say that you should never respond to an unsolicited commercial e-mail message. An angry reply of “leave me alone” notifies a spammer that your e-mail is valid and leaves you open to more junk messages.

If it’s too late and you’ve been duped by a scammer, notify the .

Most agree that it’ll take a combination of approaches to reduce spam, including user education, industry initiatives, legislation and anti-spam technologies.

Until then, there’s always the delete button.

© 2013 msnbc.com Reprints

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