Commentary

Why You Should Do Your Homework

I'm a male, gainfully employed, in my mid-30s, married with two children. Look at the messages in my email inbox, however, and you would have to believe that someone in my demographic is in need of a home treatment for wrinkles, a high-paying position as a rebate processor, a service to help me meet local singles, and the ultimate way to have smooth and beautiful feet.

I am receiving messages from someone who hasn't done their homework. I'm happy in my job. I don't need to meet local singles. I'm even satisfied with the appearance of my feet.

It's a waste of breath to talk with people who aren't listening, which is the basic premise of direct marketing. What bothers me is that spammers apparently don't care about waste. Why should they? The resources they use up are stolen to begin with, and lately they have begun to automate this theft on a dramatic scale.

According to the computer security vendor Symantec, in November nearly three quarters (72%) of email messages were spam. Symantec tracks spam by checking 450 million inboxes worldwide, so I put a lot of stock in its reports. November was a record month. Usually spam is only half (50% to 59%) of all email.

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In an interview in PC World, a senior director at Symantec hypothesized that the November surge was due to advances in spamming technology. The storm botnet, for example, puts somewhere between one million and 50 million Windows computers at the disposal of spammers.

Symantec's numbers make the situation look pretty bleak, but there may be a ray of hope on the horizon. According to a report from the Pew Internet & American Life Project that was published last May, only 23% of respondents admitted to clicking on a link in a spam message, which is down from 33% in the previous survey (2003). And only 4% admitted to making a purchase in response to spam, down from 7%. Any of us in the direct marketing community, facing the kind of trend embodied in those numbers, would be updating our resumes.

So it looks to me as if spam is increasing even while people are becoming less responsive to it.

At the same time, the most important trend in spamming is ominous. "This new generation of spam is no longer a mere annoyance to email recipients and a burden to ISPs," says the U.S. Federal Trade Commission's Spam Summit report (November, 2007), "often it is a vector for criminal activity. Clicking on a link in a malicious spam message may direct a consumer to a website that could dupe the consumer into divulging personally identifying information, including passwords and financial data." Malicious spam can also install spyware on your computer, report back on your activities, and propagate itself over your network.

Could the November surge in spam signify spammer desperation? Perhaps as users become less responsive, the spammers step up their activity in order to stay relevant and turn to crime in order to keep money coming in. It's kind of sad, isn't it? Nah. They wouldn't have this problem if they'd done their homework.

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