By Bob Sullivan Technology correspondent
msnbc.com
updated 5/22/2004 2:11:25 PM ET 2004-05-22T18:11:25

When the amount of unwanted e-mail advertisements flying around the Internet surpassed the number of real e-mails last year, it was regarded as a landmark moment. Since then, things have only gotten worse, anti-spam firms say, and in April, another milestone was passed.

Spam last month accounted for two-thirds of all e-mail traffic, according to e-mail monitoring firm MessageLabs Inc. Things are even worse in the United States, where spam accounted for more than four in five e-mails, according to Message Labs.

The firm tracks virus and spam volume by filtering every e-mail destined for its 8,500 customers, and checking it for spam or viruses.

"Twelve months ago we were just about to pass that 50 percent mark. No one thought it could keep up that pace of increase, but it has," said Brian Czarny, vice president of marketing at Message Labs. 

He made an even more sober prediction: "In terms of what we could in a year, we could see percentages in the upper 90s," he said.

Postini Inc. uses similar technology, scanning some 200 million e-mails each day, and announced similar results at a Congressional hearing on spam held yesterday. According to the firm, 83 percent of the e-mails it filtered last month for its mostly U.S.-based clients was spam. That was up from 78 percent in January, when the new anti-spam federal law, the CAN-SPAM Act, took effect.

"The trend line is increasing," said Andrew Lochart, director of product marketing at Postini. "The percentage is starting to flatten, but that's just the way the math works. Spammers are continuing to develop new tricks and techniques."

Among those techniques, he said, were a new kind of spam that includes only a single word in the subject link, and only a link in the message body. Such simple messages fool many spam filters, he said. There's also been increased use of Trojan horse programs designed to turn home Internet users into unwitting partners in spam delivery, he said. The programs allow spammers to hijack innocent people's computers in order to send spam.

Message Labs' data suggests Internet users in the United States have it worst when it comes to spam. According to the company's research, while four in five messages sent to U.S. e-mail addresses are spam, in the United Kingdom, spam represents only 52 percent of all e-mail.  In Germany, the figure is 41 percent, and in Austria, 32 percent.

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