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The Economics of Spam

Tennessee resident K. "Khan" Smith owes the internet service provider EarthLink $24 million. According to the CNN, in August 2001 he was slapped with a lawsuit accusing him of violating federal and state Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) statutes, the federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act of 1984, the federal Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 and numerous other state laws. On July 19, 2002 - having failed to appear in court - the judge ruled against him. Mr.

Smith is a spammer. Brightmail, a vendor of e-mail filters and anti-spam applications warned that close to 5 million spam "attacks" or "bursts" occurred in June 2002 and that spam has mushroomed 450 percent since June 2001. This pace continued unabated well into the beginning of 2004 when the introduction of spam filters began to take effect. PC World concurs. Between one half and three quarters of all e-mail messages are spam or UCE (Unsolicited Commercial Email) - unsolicited and intrusive commercial ads, mostly concerned with sex, scams, get rich quick schemes, financial services and products, and health articles of dubious provenance.

The messages are sent from spoofed or fake e-mail addresses. Some spammers hack into unsecured servers - mainly in China and Korea - to relay their missives anonymously. Starting in 2003, malicious hackers began using spam to install malware - such as viruses, adware, spyware, and Trojans - on the unprotected personal computers of less savvy users. They thus transform these computers into "zombies", organize them into spam-spewing "bots" (networks), and sell access to them to criminals on penumbral boards and forums all over the Net. Spam is an industry. Mass e-mailers maintain lists of e-mail addresses, often "harvested" by spamware bots - specialized computer applications - from Web sites. These lists are rented out or sold to marketers who use bulk mail services. They come cheap - c. $100 for 10 million addresses. Bulk mailers provide servers and bandwidth, charging c.

$300 per million messages sent. As spam recipients become more inured, ISPs less tolerant, and both more litigious - spammers multiply their efforts in order to maintain the same response rate. Spam works. It is not universally unwanted - which makes it tricky to outlaw. It elicits between 0.1 and 1 percent in positive follow ups, depending on the message. Many messages now include HTML, JavaScript, and ActiveX coding and thus resemble (or actually contain) viruses and Trojans. Jupiter Media Matrix predicted in 2001 that the number of spam messages annually received by a typical Internet user will double to 1400 and spending on legitimate e-mail marketing will reach $9.4 billion by 2006 - compared to $1 billion in 2001. Forrester Research pegs the number at $4.

8 billion in 2003. More than 2.3-5 billion spam messages are sent daily. eMarketer puts the figures a lot lower at 76 billion messages in 2002. By 2006, daily spam output will soar to c. 15 billion missives, says Radicati Group. Jupiter projects a more modest 268 billion annual messages this year (2005). An average communication costs the spammer 0.00032 cents. PC World quotes the European Union as pegging the bandwidth costs of spam worldwide in 2002 at $8-10 billion annually.

Other damages include server crashes, time spent purging unwanted messages, lower productivity, aggravation, and increased cost of Internet access. Inevitably, the spam industry gave rise to an anti-spam industry. According to a Radicati Group report titled "Anti-virus, anti-spam, and content filtering market trends 2002-2006", anti-spam revenues were projected to exceed $88 million in 2002 - and more than double by 2006. List blockers, report and complaint generators, advocacy groups, registers of known spammers, and spam filters all proliferate. The Wall Street Journal reported in its June 25, 2002 issue about a resurgence of anti-spam startups financed by eager venture capital. ISPs are bent on preventing abuse - reported by victims - by expunging the accounts of spammers. But the latter simply switch ISPs or sign on with free services like Hotmail and Yahoo! Barriers to entry are getting lower by the day as the costs of hardware, software, and communications plummet. The use of e-mail and broadband connections by the general population is spreading. Hundreds of thousands of technologically-savvy operators have joined the market in the last five years, as the dotcom bubble burst.


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