Harvesters Still at Work But Spam More Manageable

  |  November 29, 2005   |  Comments

An agency study finds technology, vigilance and other techniques are making consumers' inboxes less polluted.

Spammers continue to harvest email addresses, but marketers will be pleased to learn the spam scourge is growing more manageable. That's the conclusion of a new study released by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

To conduct the research, the agency created 150 new email accounts, three sets of 50. Two sets were at ISPs that filter incoming email to eliminate spam, the third was at an ISP that didn't filter anything. Researchers then posted these email addresses on 50 different Web sites, including sites the FTC controls as well as on message boards, blogs, chat rooms and USENET groups.

"The purpose of the study was to determine whether harvesting was still going on and, if it was going on, whether ISPs that purport to filter spam out actually do so," Debbie Matties, an FTC staff attorney with the Division of Marketing Practices, told ClickZ.

Spammers who violate the CAN-SPAM Act can get extra penalties for harvesting email addresses, but the practice itself isn't specifically prohibited by the Act.

After five weeks, the FTC concluded harvesting was, indeed, still happening, but the consumer spam experience is likely improving. The FTC found the email addresses posted on Web sites, rather than on message boards, blogs, chat rooms or USENET groups, were most likely to be harvested.

"Indeed, nearly all of the spam received was received by the unfiltered addresses that we had posted on Web site pages," the report reads.

Part of the reason the community-oriented sites were safer was due to the vigilance of the operators of those forums. In some cases, operators removed email addresses posted by the FTC researchers. In others the technology masked the true addresses so they couldn't be harvested.

"In many cases, on the USENET groups and the moderated sites, the email addresses were removed right away. They weren't up there for very long," said Matties.

The agency said these results may be skewed by the fact it chose to post addresses on very high-volume community sites whose operators may be more vigilant than those of less-trafficked sites.

The FTC also found ISP spam filtering may be making the inbox a less polluted place for legitimate marketers. One ISP that filters email got rid of 85 percent of spam, the other zapped 95 percent, the study concluded.

Another popular consumer technique, "masking" an email address by replacing characters, seems to work, the FTC found. To mask the address, the researchers spaced out addresses and wrote out the words "at" and "dot," so the address "johndoe@ftc.gov" would read "johndoe at ftc dot gov." They then placed an unmasked address adjacent to the masked one to compare how much spam each received. At the end of five weeks, the four unmasked unfiltered addresses received 6,416 spam messages while the four masked addresses received only one spam message.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Pamela Parker

Pamela Parker is a former managing editor of ClickZ News, Features, and Experts. She's been covering interactive advertising and marketing since the boom days of 1999, chronicling the dot-com crash and the subsequent rise of the medium. Before working at ClickZ, Parker was associate editor at @NY, a pioneering Web site and e-mail newsletter covering New York new media start-ups. Parker received a master's degree in journalism, with a concentration in new media, from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

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