FTC: No ‘silver bullet’ in spam fight

/ Source: msnbc.com

There is no “silver bullet” to solve the exploding volume and increasing costs of spam, the Federal Trade Commission today told Congress Wednesday.

SPAM IS MULTIPLYING so rapidly that “solving the problem of bulk unsolicited commercial e-mail will likely necessitate an integrated effort involving a variety of technological, legal, and consumer action, rather than one single solution,” Commissioners Mozelle W. Thompson and Orson Swindle said in prepared testimony before Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.

The commissioners’ testimony outlined the FTC’s spam-fighting efforts, including law enforcement, consumer education and a three-day “spam forum” in late April that addressed the cost and technological burdens caused by the explosion of unwanted commercial e-mail.

Spam, although costly and annoying, is legal under federal law. However, the bulk of spam appears to be deceptive or fraudulent, opening it up to a crackdown by the federal government’s consumer protection agency.

An analysis of unsolicited commercial e-mail by the FTC staff found that nearly 66 percent of the spam appeared to contain deception, either in the content, in the “subject” line, or in the “from” line.

The FTC found that 20 percent of the spam reviewed contained offers for investment or business opportunities; 18 percent offered adult-oriented products or services; 17 percent involved finance, including credit cards, mortgages, refinancing and insurance.

At least 90 percent of unwanted e-mail messages in the investment/business opportunity appeared to be false claims, according to Wednesday’s testimony.

Spam has become one of the biggest problems facing consumers who use the Internet. More than 40 percent of e-mails sent every day are considered spam.

The flood of unwanted commercial messages could lead to “significant disruptions and inefficiencies in Internet services and may constitute a significant problem for consumers and businesses using the Internet,” the FTC said.

Indeed, spam could cost U.S. business over $10 billion in lost productivity and technology expenses this year, according to technology firm Ferris Research. Corporations currently report that they are only blocking about 40 percent of spam using a variety of different tools and services.

By the end of the year, more than 1 trillion spam messages will flood Internet users’ in-boxes, according to research firm IDC.

The FTC has brought more than 53 actions against spammers who used deceptive content or used deceptive “from” addresses or subject lines, among other charges. Last month the Commission requested a federal court order to shut down a pornographic spammer accused of sending deceptive e-mails to lure consumers to an adult site. In recent cases, the FTC is alleging that failing to honor “remove me” messages from an e-mail list is a deceptive practice.

The FTC’s testimony is seen as a step towards seeking legislation and greater funding for the Commission to take tougher action against spammers.

“The FTC is concerned that the public and Congress is looking to them as a savior,” said Bart Lazar of Seyfarth Shaw in Los Angeles, an attorney who specializes in Internet and new media issues. “The FTC alone can’t stop spam.”

Internet access providers and individuals attempt to block the addresses of known spammers with filters, but nefarious merchants often change their addresses to avoid detection. A combination of improvements in anti-spam software, legislation and consumer education could help curb spam, most industry experts agree.

The FTC testimony comes at a time of increased attention on Capitol Hill on spam. Senators Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) recently introduced legislation targeted against spammers. Another anticipated bill being sponsored by Representatives W.J. “Billy” Tauzin (R-La.) and F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) is expected to be introduced in the next few weeks.

Lobbying by consumer groups, the direct marketing and retail industries and Internet access companies for federal legislation has also intensified.

Recently the major Internet companies AOL, MSN and Yahoo! joined forces to battle the growing problem by sharing anti-spam resources, strategies and technologies.