By Bob Sullivan Technology correspondent
msnbc.com
updated 12/27/2004 4:43:33 PM ET 2004-12-27T21:43:33

America Online on Monday claimed a rare victory against spam, saying the rate of unwanted e-mail received by its users plummeted 75 percent during 2004. The news contradicts other spam studies released recently, and some analysts were skeptical of AOL’s claims.

In its statement, AOL said that some spammers are now "throwing in the towel," giving up on efforts to send the e-mail advertisements to AOL users.

“The bottom line based on this great news is, we’re opening up a new, better chapter in the story about spam," the statement quoted Carl Hutzler, director of antispam operations at AOL, as saying. "The gap between the amount of good e-mail AOL delivers, and the bad e-mail members might get, has never been wider than it is today.”

The online access giant reported a series of statistics showing that member-reported spam messages had fallen drastically during the past year.

In November 2004, AOL members sent in an average of 2.2 million spam reports daily, compared to almost 11 million a year ago. Meanwhile, spam messages sent directly to junk e-mail folders fell 60 percent during the same time period. Overall e-mail sent from Internet addresses to AOL members fell, too -- dropping from a daily average of 2.1 billion in November 2003 to 1.6 billion in November 2004. AOL analysts said they believe that drop represents reduced spam.

AOL credited a variety of factors: Its own anti-spam technology, new federal and state antispam laws, and aggressive prosecution of spammers by the Anti-Spam Technical Alliance, a group that includes AOL as well as Microsoft, Yahoo and Earthlink. Neither Microsoft or Yahoo immediately returned phone calls. 

(Microsoft is a partner in MSNBC.)

In one high-profile case, the technology firms worked with law enforcement in Virginia to prosecute an out-of-state spammer, leading to a jury recommendation of a nine-year jail sentence under Virginia's new antispam statute. AOL even gave away a Porsche confiscated from a spammer to one of its users as part of a sweepstakes.

"Our members are telling us they are getting less spam than ever on AOL, and we're seeing a substantial drop in the number of spam messages reaching AOL members' spam folders," Hutzler said.  "That means one thing: many spammers are raising the white flag of surrender for the first time since 1999."

'Totally the reverse'
AOL's positive spam news contrasts with more dire statistics from other firms suggesting that overall, spam is still alive and well.

E-mail filtering firm MessageLabs said fully 73 percent of the e-mail headed at its customers during November was spam. Another filtering firm, FrontBridge, issued a release earlier this month saying spam had spiked for the holidays; other anti-spam firms have issued similar warnings.

"This is totally the reverse of everyone else's experience," said Richi Jennings, a spam analyst with Ferris Research.

"It's a complicated area and I must presume that someone at AOL has been confused by statistics." Jennings suggested that perhaps AOL users are simply complaining less because they are "jaded."

"In general, unfiltered spam volumes have at least doubled over the last 12 months," he said.

AOL spokesman Nicholas Graham noted that outside research firms like MessageLabs and FrontBridge don't filter AOL users' e-mail, so they would not have accurate statistics on AOL spam.

But another spam fighter, chief privacy officer of ePrivacy Group Ray Everett Church, was also skeptical of AOL's claims.

"A lot depends on how they count," he said. Some spammers may have given up on AOL inboxes, but now they regularly thrust their marketing pitches into chat rooms and towards instant message users.

"Throwing in the towel? I just don't buy that," said Church, "given that spending a half hour on the AOL service will tell you there's still plenty of spam coming through many holes in the system, not simply the e-mail inbox."

Graham acknowledged that spammers continue to change their tactics and that overall spam may still be increasing. Nevertheless, he said, AOL has taken advantage of its size and ability to control e-mail coming in and out of its service to make real headway on the spam problem.

"Our members are complaining less because they are seeing less spam," he said. "Now, they see almost completely good e-mail in their inboxes."

Graham also noted that AOL was succeeding at making sending unwanted e-mail to its users so troublesome and expensive that "we are at last closer to the goal of turning the economic formula of spam on its head."

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