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The Deadly Duo: Spam and Viruses, December 2003

  |  January 6, 2004   |  Comments

High growth rates and record-breakers are usually celebrated, but not when it comes to spam and viruses. The spam volume rose from 42 percent of e-mail to 58 percent during 2003, and the year fell just short of being the worst on record for malware variants.

Nearly 6 out of 10 emails are unwanted, as Brightmail's Probe Network measured December 2003's spam volume at 58 percent – 2 percentage points higher than the previous month. The volume has risen dramatically since the beginning of the year, when spam only comprised 42 percent of the email in inboxes, and Brightmail expects that spam will make up at least 65 percent of all email in 2004.

Once again, product-related spam dominated the volume, however there was a slight month-over-month decrease. Scam email registered the biggest drop, encompassing 9 percent of the volume in December, compared to 13 percent in November, with the decline attributed to a new "fraud" category that Brightmail added.

According to a Brightmail spokesperson, "Brightmail decided to create a fraud category because the company began to see a broader distinction between spam messages that were considered scam and messages that were considered fraudulent." The company found that identity fraud and brand spoofing [define] spam exploded during 2003.

December 2003 Spam Category Data
Type of Spam Dec. Volume Nov. Volume Change
Products 21% 22% -1
Financial 18% 17% +1
Adult 18% 16% +2
Scams 9% 13% -4
Other 8% 8% 0
Health 6% 7% -1
Leisure 6% 6% 0
Internet 6% 6% 0
Political 2% 3% -1
Spiritual 3% 2% +1
Fraud 3% NA NA
Source: Brightmail's Probe Network

Internet users are becoming so fed up with spam that Synovate found 83 percent of the 1,000 Americans that they surveyed would register for a "do-not-spam" list if it is enacted by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). A December 2003 Harris Interactive survey found something similar – 74 percent of online adults would favor a law that makes unsolicited mass spamming illegal. These findings come as a result of 61 percent of respondents reporting that they are receiving more spam than they were six months earlier.

Andrew Davidson, vice president of Synovate, explains that a "do-not-spam" registry will not eliminate unwanted messages completely, but will establish standards. "Marketing via email to addresses on the list will be permitted but those emails will have to comply with certain regulations...It will be in the interests of reputable email marketers to meet these standards."

Davidson expects that enforcement will be challenging. "Like the 'do-not-call' list it will depend on the willingness of those who register to complain about unwanted email and the ability of the FTC to chase down offenders. A reduction in spam is therefore likely but as to how much it will be reduced is an unknown."

Synovate also found that, on average, Americans receive 155 unsolicited messages in their personal or work email accounts each week with 20 percent receiving 200 or more.

Number of Unsolicited E-Mails
Reported in an Average Week
Male 164
Female 147
18-34 age group 152
35-54 age group 154
55+ 158
Northeast 131
Midwest 157
South 163
West 162
Source: Synovate

Among all that spam, email users are bound to find countless offers for "Viagra," which Commtouch declared as the product responsible for more spam than any other in 2003. The anti-spam company also found that over 28 percent of spam messages have text tricks in the subject, escaping detection by content filter solutions.

More than half of American Internet users were able to see right through the spammers' tricks, as a joint Digital Impact and Harris Interactive survey revealed that 51 percent were able to distinguish legitimate email from spam based on permission or a prior business relationship.

Hidden amidst the unwanted advertisements, scams, and obscene messages are bigger threats – destructive worms and viruses that can cripple personal computers and corporate networks. mi2g identified 2003 as the second worst year on record for new variations of malware [define] with 666 new additions, compared to 1997 when 669 new species were recorded.

According to mi2g, Sobig wreaked the most economic damage worldwide in 2003, responsible for $36.7 billion, followed by Klez ($19.4 billion), Yaha ($11.3 billion), Mimail ($10.5 billion) and Swen ($10 billion).

Central Command, Inc. gave the top spot on its monthly list of pests to Worm/Gibe.C, which infected computers through a cleverly constructed HTML email message that impersonated a Microsoft Web site. The highly destructive and persistent Klez earned the distinction of being the only virus to make the list every month during 2003, and never slipping below the fifth position.

December 2003 Dirty Dozen
Rank Virus Percentage
1. Worm/Gibe.C 21.4%
2. Worm/Klez.E (including G) 14.7%
3. Worm/MiMail.I 12.8%
4. Worm/MiMail.J 5.9%
5. WWorm/BugBear.B 5.2%
6. Worm/MiMail.K 5.1%
7. Worm/MiMail.A 3.7%
8. Worm/Sober.C 1.9%
9. Worm/Nachi.A 1.6%
10. Worm/MiMail.C 1.6%
11. Worm/Hawawi.G 1.2%
12. Worm/Dumaru.A 1.1%
Others 23.8%
Note: The table above represents the most prevalent
viruses for December 2003, number one being the
most frequent.
Source: Central Command, Inc.

Brightmail defines the categories as follows:

  • Product-oriented messages advertise general goods or services.
  • Financial marketing messages are those that make reference to money, the stock market, credit reports, loans, and investments.
  • Adult-oriented spam refers to offerings for offensive or inappropriate material, intended for persons over the age of 18.
  • Scam messages contain fraudulent or intentionally misguiding content.
  • "Other" encompasses miscellaneous messages that do not pertain to any of the specified categories.
  • The health category offers health-related products or services, such as herbal remedies or medical treatments.
  • Internet- or computer-oriented emails are those that advertise related products or services, such as Web hosting, or design.
  • Leisure-related messages are those advertising prizes, awards, discounted travel, online games and casinos.
  • Unwanted political messages pertain to those advertising a candidate's campaign and requests for donations to a particular political party or cause.
  • Spiritually oriented messages include offerings for psychics, organized religion, and astrology.
  • Fraudulent emails are intentionally misguiding, or known to result in fraudulent activity on the part of the sender.

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