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Spam ruining e-mail for many, Pew study finds

Barbara Rose / Chicago Tribune (KRT)

A grandmother no longer feels safe letting her grandchildren use her computer because of the pornography that pops on her screen.

A job seeker lost valuable leads when he was forced to change his e-mail after his inbox became inundated with spam after he posted his resume on the Internet.

A computer worker installed filtering software at home - and catches one unsolicited message every two minutes.

"It sucks away my humanity, going through the spam folder," said David McNett of Austin. "I don't check routinely because it's unpleasant."

Like the fictional broadcaster in the movie ``Network,'' the nation's 117 million e-mail users are "mad as hell" about spam and they don't want to take it any more.

Even as U.S. senators passed legislation Oct. 22 to authorize a no-spam registry, a new study concluded that spam is beginning to "undermine the integrity of e-mail and degrade the online experience."

Twenty-five percent of Internet users rely less on electronic mail because of spam, according to the study released Oct. 23 by the Pew Internet & American Life Project (

More than half say spam has made them less trusting of e-mail. Seventy percent say spam makes being online unpleasant.

Businesses report lost productivity and mounting software and hardware costs to handle an estimated 15 billion unsolicited messages flying daily over the Internet - half of all e-mail traffic. Cost estimates vary widely: between $10 billion and $87 billion annually to U.S. businesses.

Yet to put spam in perspective, 59 percent of the people surveyed by Pew called it "annoying but not a big problem."

Those who consider it a "big problem" also consider junk mail and telemarketing calls to be big intrusions, suggesting an "erosion of tolerance about many things in life," the Pew study reports.

The study is based on telephone interviews in June with 2,200 adults and more than 4,000 responses to a "Ban the Spam" campaign ( by the Telecommunications Research & Action Center, a national consumer group.

Pew's survey and Chicago Tribune interviews suggest that e-mail - a medium embraced for immediacy and convenience - is becoming less useful.

"I don't check my inbox as much any more," said Sarah Skorija, marketing officer at the Rockford Public Library. "I just don't want to deal with all the spam."

Meg Goodman, a senior vice president at Draft Chicago, approaches her inbox as if "looking for the needles in a haystack ... Spam is driving us back toward the telephone."

Dianne Michels, a human resources consultant in Evanston, Ill., calls people before sending important messages.

"E-mail was a way to communicate easily but now it's turned into this - something you have a lot less trust with," she said, referring to viruses that arrive via e-mail. "You have to be on your guard."

Women are more bothered by spam than men, according to the Pew study, and the difference is most striking when it concerns pornography.

Eighty-three percent of women, compared with 68 percent of men, are bothered by spam's offensive or obscene content, the study reported.

"It takes a lot to embarrass me, and I'm very offended," said Meredith O'Connor, director of business development for World Business Chicago. "You feel like you're guilty when these sexual e-mails are coming across your desk."

Many states have enacted anti-spam laws, and Wednesday's Senate action is part of a recent flurry of federal concern. Yet some legal experts worry that new laws will do more harm than good if they supersede existing statutes.

Among the weapons already on the books: a federal statute prohibiting computer fraud, as well as state laws against criminal trespassing. When Internet service providers prohibit the use of their servers for unsolicited e-mail, it's akin to posting a "no trespassing" sign to spammers.

"Suing spammers and winning is easy once you find them," said Pete Wellborn, who won a $16 million judgment in May against a spammer for Internet service provider Earthlink Inc.

The more difficult task is locating spammers who use sophisticated technology to disguise their identities and locations. Some use offshore companies to host advertisers' Web sites to make prosecution more difficult.

"The fight against spam will always be a three-prong attack: technology, the law and user education," Wellborn said.

Not surprisingly, sophisticated users have become adept at minimizing spam's impact, even without filtering software. They keep multiple e-mail addresses, making certain to keep at least one address "clean" from any postings on the Web where it could be picked up by a spammer.

They also use random numbers and scrambled alphabet characters, making the addresses harder to guess for a spammer.

Tim Krauskopf, a Chicago entrepreneur and former Motorola Inc. executive, keeps five e-mail addresses, including three that he checks constantly.

Even so, it's hard to get solicitations he does want. An account he used exclusively to sign up for ads quickly got taken over by spam. Fewer than 1 percent of his 300 monthly messages are from sites where he registered for information.

"Now I don't check it all," he said.

The Pew study reports a user who came up with a name no spammer found:

"I finally took the moniker FlatulentFreddy, which finally has stopped the spam from coming my way. Most of it."


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Steve Sack / KRT Campus