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Spam: a threat to the Information Society

Background paper 

Although there is no agreed definition of spam, the term is commonly used to describe unsolicited electronic communications over e-mail, mobile (SMS, MMS) and instant messaging services, with the objective of marketing commercial products or services. The content of these messages can range from advertisement for low-cost plane tickets to pornographic material.

While this description covers most kinds of spam, a rising phenomenon is the use of spam to support fraudulent and criminal activities , including attempts to capture financial information (e.g. account numbers and passwords) by masquerading messages as originating from trusted companies ("brand-spoofing" or "phishing"). Spammers have proven to be creative in avoiding detection, including falsification of origin of e-mail and randomization of content to bypass spam filters. 

The cost of spam is not supported by the senders but by individual recipients and the Internet system in general.

The scale of the problem has grown to such an extent that anti-spam laws are rapidly being enacted in a number of countries, although approaches and remedies vary between countries. At the same time, there is increasing recognition that countering spam is an issue requiring international coordination and cooperation.

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The cost of spam
The marginal cost for a spammer to send an additional message is negligible. This means that even if the response rate is very low, this activity can still be economically viable. Conversely, spam is costly for the recipients, and may also include loss of storage space, increased consumption of bandwidth, wasted time and misused resources. Beside these, there are other costs that are intangible - but still have a negative impact on users - such as the decline of user trust in Internet and e-mail, the risk of incurring possible frauds, and receiving viruses or disturbing material.

What collective impact is the menace of spam having on the efficiency of corporate activity?

See: "A spammer in the works", MessageLabs, 2003

Spam is a parasite, as the act of sending a message costs the sender less than it costs all other parties impacted by the sending of the message.

See: "The Economics of Spam", S. Cobb, ePrivacyGroup

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Mobile spam and 'spim' 
Spam is not only affecting e-mails, but it is also increasingly affecting our mobile networks with SMS and MMS, and instant messaging services (so-called "spim"). In the future spam could invade VoIP conversations as well.

The GSM Association lists spam as one of the four top threats to the future of the mobile industry, and in Europe it has been estimated that 65 per cent of mobile users receive around five spam messages per week.

See: "UK Watchdog bites mobile spam scammers", The Register, February 2004

Mobile spam is a concern in particular in countries where mobile Internet is commonly used, as is the case in Japan. NTT DoCoMo, the  largest Japanese mobile operator, has since 2001 been trying to undertake countermeasures to limit this phenomenon.

See: How to prevent spam e-mail, DoCoMo Net, 2002
See: Mobile spam: Is the next plague upon us?,, June 2003
Spim is to chat users what spam is to e-mail users. Spim is usually constituted of a one-line message with a link to a website (most of the time with pornographic material).

See: Is spim worse than spam?, The Register, 8 April 2004 and Spam monster eyes another target, Wired News, 26 March 2004.

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Spam and fraud
Spam is a vehicle that can carry advertising, but also viruses, scams and other deceptive content. Beside violating anti-spam laws - where these already exist - spam often breaches privacy, represents fraudulent behaviour, can have offensive or disturbing content, and creates problems relating to protection of minors from pornographic material.

" It is a well-known fact that no other section of the 

population avail themselves more readily and 

speedily of the latest triumphs of science 

than the criminal class."

(Inspector John Bonfield, Chicago Police Department, 1888)

Fraud operators are always among the first to appreciate the potential of a new technology to exploit and deceive consumers. The Internet itself has given rise to new high-tech scams that were not possible before development of the Internet. Both traditional scams and innovative ones exploit the global reach and instantaneous speed of the Internet. In addition, the Internet enables anonymity, making the work of law enforcement authorities particularly difficult.
Anti-Spam Solutions and Security
- Security focus, February 2004
The US Federal Trade Commission listed in its 2003 report the top ten Internet frauds. Several of them are usually perpetrated through spam messages, such as, for example, foreign money offers (“Nigeria scam”), false business opportunities, and, more recently, ID theft (including the s.c. “phishing”).
See: Trends in fraud and identity theft, FTC, 2004
Phishing attacks use 'spoofed' e-mails and fraudulent websites designed to convince recipients into disclosing their personal financial data such as credit card numbers. By hijacking the trusted brands of well-known banks, online retailers and credit card companies, phishers are able to convince up to five per cent of recipients to respond to them.
See: Anti-Phishing Working Group and FTC's Consumer Alert

The so-called "Nigerian letter fraud", created more than 20 years ago, has taken on a new life online.

See: Internet Fraud Complaint Center and Nigeria scam

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Updated : 2011-04-04