Imagine that every time you went to grab an item at the supermarket, someone ran up to you and forced you to consider what they were selling. Chances are you'd be shopping at a different supermarket soon. Well, that's the state of e-mail these days. Half the messages received are spam, and it sometimes seems the more you try to fight it, the worse the problem becomes.
Officials at California's San Diego County schools admitted as much. Despite spam filters and blocks, teachers in the district recently started becoming deluged by spam and immediately asked why. District technology coordinators said basically the problem is so bad they don't have enough time to fix all the problems.
Jim Hirsch, associate superintendent for technology services in the Plano ISD in Texas, says, "We are blocking more than 60,000 spam messages per week and trying to filter as many as we can without stopping legitimate e-mails from being delivered."
Although districts across the nation have installed protection to curb junk e-mail, spam quadrupled in the past year and now accounts for more than half of all messages received in schools. Sending the annoying messages is fast, cheap and effective, and the stakes are huge. A recent study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that 7 percent of e-mail users--more than eight million people--ordered a product or service through unsolicited e-mail, and 33 percent were enticed to click on included links for more information.
The study also concluded that current levels of spam are undermining the integrity of e-mail and degrading the quality of online life. One of every four users say spam caused them to reduce their use of e-mail, even significantly, and three of four say spam cannot be stopped no matter what is done. Processing spam wastes more district time, money and resources than ever, and deleting it has become a daily ritual for staff and students.
Oddly, about 200 individuals are responsible for 90 percent of the spam sent throughout the world, as detailed at Web sites such as Spamhaus. These expert violators continually come up with new ways to bypass filters, including using bogus return addresses and intentionally misspelling key words that many filters track. Sinister elements are also mounting aggressive e-mail attacks against anti-spam movements and recently even crippled Web sites that maintain spam-blocking lists.
California passed one of the toughest anti-spam laws in the country. It allows people to sue spammers for $1,000 per unsolicited e-mail and up to $1 million for a spam campaign. Congress also passed anti-spam legislation, however, the Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial E-mail calls the bill relatively weak. The federal version sets fines of only $250 per e-mail for repeat messages sent to addresses that opt out of ads, so the burden for protection is on the consumer. There is also talk about establishing a "do not e-mail" list, but since spammers typically operate outside the law, such a registry could become a new invitation to spam.
Spam is a multi-headed monster and single software solutions are no longer effective. Districts must therefore arm themselves with multiple weapons that may include filters at service provider levels such as Spam Assassin, anti-spam tools included with virus protection software such as Norton AntiVirus, standalone products including SpamNet, and services that validate e-mail senders before messages are transmitted, such as Spamarrest. Your staff needs to stay informed about new spam-fighting developments, monitor the measures that other schools have adopted, and promote online behaviors that minimize attacks. The resources below will help you assess, update and augment protection against new spam assaults.
Odvard Egil Dyrli, firstname.lastname@example.org, is senior editor and emeritus professor of education at the University of Connecticut.