Wireless spam: Some fighting it successfully

Problem is growing as more people unplug

WASHINGTON -- Spam is already plaguing some wireless devices in the U.S., despite claims at a spam forum in Washington, D.C., last week that the nation was behind others at least in that one type of unwanted commercial e-mail.

Personal digital assistants (PDAs) that allow users to download their e-mail, such as BlackBerry devices, have the same problems with spam as "wired" computers, but have the added problems of cellular-phone spam, because PDA users may be paying per-minute charges to download the junk e-mail.

"If you're getting spam at the office, you're getting a second copy on your BlackBerry," said Frank Gillman, director of technology at Allen Matkins LLP, a law firm based in Los Angeles. "The last thing I want to do is have my pager going off with a message and have it be about mortgage rates or penis enlargement."

Most members of a wireless spam panel at a U.S. Federal Trade Commission forum last week said that spam on cell phones has not plagued the U.S. to the same level as it has in Japan. Text-messaging on cell phones, using the SMS (Short Message Service) protocol, is becoming more popular in the U.S., panelists said, but few U.S. cell phone users have experienced problems with commercial messages coming directly to their cell phones.

However, Albert Gidari, a partner with the Perkins Coie LLP law firm, noted during the panel that the distinctions between computers and wireless devices are disappearing, and it's difficult to separate wireless spam from the other stuff when thinking about ways to fight it. For Gillman, wireless spam has been a problem since his firm started using pagers in October 2000. At one point, he was receiving 70 to 100 spam e-mails to his office account each day.

"If your pager or your PDA device is going off that often, it becomes useless to you," Gillman said. "It stops being the critical warning, and you basically turn off (the device), leave it in your briefcase and check it periodically, which goes against the whole reason to get one. We were getting so much junk mail, it was defeating all the money we were investing in the BlackBerry."

A representative of BlackBerry maker Research In Motion wasn't immediately available for comment Friday.

It's not all bad news for Gillman and his co-workers. The law firm has been using a spam filter from FrontBridge Technologies for about two years, and the spam in Gillman's in-box has gone down less than five a day. "Now, if people get spam, it's almost like they're shocked that they get it," Gillman said of his co-workers. "It's like they notice it, instead of it being a fact of daily life."

FrontBridge's spam filter, a distributed network service, uses a combination of the company's own blacklists, rules-based scoring and "fingerprinting" to match e-mail against several known spam characteristics. The company makes an average of 250 to 350 changes to its rules list each day in an effort to keep up with spammers, said Steve Jillings, chief executive office of FrontBridge.

While spam filtering can result in false positives, FrontBridge claims that less than one in 250,000 pieces of e-mail is mistakenly flagged as spam. If you get 50 pieces of e-mail a day, FrontBridge would mistake a piece of legitimate e-mail to you for spam once every 19 years, Jillings said.

FrontBridge is not the only vendor offering spam filtering services, of course. But Jillings' numbers illustrate the problem spam has become for companies trying to save money on additional servers, improve worker productivity and avoid human resources headaches by keeping ads for porn sites off company computer screens. In January 2002, just 16 percent of the e-mail FrontBridge filtered was spam, but that percentage rose to 48 percent by December 2002. In April, 58 percent of the e-mail on FrontBridge's network was spam, according to Jillings.

Jillings' most recent spam numbers are low compared to the amount of spam seen by Postini, another spam filtering service. Doug McLean, vice president of corporate marketing for Postini, said 65 to 70 percent of the e-mail Postini filters is spam.

While legislative solutions were discussed frequently at the three-day FTC spam forum last week, both Jillings and McLean are lukewarm about the idea. About half of the spam Postini filters comes from outside the U.S., and a U.S. law would have no effect on that spam, McLean said.

"Good legislation is a good idea, but you have to have good filters in place," McLean added. "(A law) does nothing to address the issue of people who are basically outlaws."

National legislation would raise difficult issues about defining what is spam, Jillings added, although his company would support anything the government can do to make spamming more difficult. "There's a lot of legitimate marketing organizations that use e-mail," he said. "They're the ones who are going to be affected by a law. We don't want the government to be deciding for us as individuals what's spam and what's not spam."

Gillman, from the Los Angeles law firm, said he's satisfied with the spam-filtering service from FrontBridge, but he's unsure about efforts to pass a U.S. law that would limit spam. More likely to produce results, however, are private efforts to reduce spam, like a recent announcement that America Online, Microsoft and Yahoo would work together to fight spam.

"The federal government has been trying to lock down telemarketing for a long time, and yet, every night at dinner time, I get a call from somebody trying to sell me something," Gillman said. "The federal government can make inroads, and they can make it a little harder ... but I don't think they will be able to stop it."

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