America - Andrew Stephen gets spam with everything

This country is drowning in spam. It now accounts for nearly half of all e-mails and it is growing a

Hardly a week goes by without my receiving a fax that says something such as: "Have YOUR say in American Democracy." It goes on to ask a topical question such as: "Was President Bush right to declare war on Iraq?", and then has boxes for "Yes" or "No". The giveaway to the fax's aim comes when it says: "Please fax back your replies to . . ." - followed by a 1-900 (a premium rate) number. In other words, if you fax back, you are paying money on your phone bill to the senders of the fax. A nice little scam, that.

Such fax scams were supposed to have been made illegal by a 1991 law - and it is true that these are the only junk faxes I now receive, together with one that says: "Check Your Wall Street Investments NOW!" But what has become a true scandal here, and is threatening to bring businesses to a grinding halt, is the proliferation of junk e-mail, known as spam. In the US, spam accounts for nearly half of all e-mails, and is growing at the rate of 50 per cent a month. The average consumer receives 110 unwanted e-mails a week, and corporate spending to combat it is now costing between $8bn and $10bn a year. This year no fewer than two trillion unsolicited e-mails will wing their way through cyberspace. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) estimates that around two-thirds contain false or deceptive information.

The most common are for prescription drugs ("Get VIAGRAA," said one I received last week - a deliberate misspelling to which I shall return later), penis and breast enlargement, getting out of debt, and offering large payments from Nigeria. I receive dozens of these a day, and AOL sometimes blocks as many as 2.4 billion spams a day from its 27 million users in the US - though many, many more get through. So bad has the problem become that the three big rivals in cyberspace - Microsoft, AOL and Yahoo! - recently announced that they were joining forces to fight what, at the very least, is an annoying daily occurrence for all internet users here.

I know that there is spam in the UK, too, and an EU directive, which will come into effect in October, will try to get it under control. But spam has got entirely out of hand here over the past three years and is now reaching intolerable levels. (The term "spam", incidentally, does not derive directly from the processed meat that came out of the Second World War rations - but from the cyber-generation's fascination with a Monty Python sketch in which "Spam, Spam, Spam" was sung as the refrain.)

With the big three internet companies declaring war on the spammer, a fierce cyberspace battle of attrition is now in full spate. The big companies - and small ones, too - are investing millions in software and cyber-detectives to catch the bad guys. But the bad guys nearly always remain a step ahead, to the extent that Panix, a small internet service provider (ISP) with 5,000 subscribers, says its profits will fall by between 12 and 15 per cent in 2003.

For example, filters used to stop words such as "Viagra" getting through are beaten by deliberate misspellings of the word - hence the (unwanted) "Viagraa" I was offered a few days ago.

There are three basic ways the spammers get hold of e-mail addresses, all of them underhand. The first is by the use of "spyware", software programs that plant a bug in a computer and then enable the spammers to root out e-mail addresses used on legitimate websites; most computers (particularly if they are used to download music) have such spyware implanted without the user's knowledge.

The second is by the collection of e-mail addresses from marketing companies that have legitimately acquired them but which then sell them. Typically, these firms will charge more unscrupulous individuals $500-$2,000 for a million e-mail addresses, which will then be targeted for Viagra, longer penises and so forth.

The third method of finding e-mail addresses is to use the so-called "dictionary" method, by which computers generate every possible combination of letters and numbers for a particular domain ("john8734@aol.com", say). If one in a hundred succeed in getting through to a real e-mail address, they are doing well. It costs only pennies to send millions of e-mails, and when the non-existent ones are bounced back, the spam merchants know that those aren't real addresses. They then concentrate on what they have discovered are genuine e-mail addresses, add them to a list - and then sell the lists. If recipients send an "unsubscribe" e-mail back, the spammers have an alternative method of discovering genuine e-mail addresses. And so the spam proliferates.

So much so, in fact, that the FTC held a week-long, bad-tempered conference at the end of last month to discuss the problem: one of those trying to prevent spam nearly came to blows with another who is in favour of it. Pro-spammers say it would be a violation of free-speech constitutional rights; certainly any federal law against spam (and there are currently four rival anti-spam bills before Congress) would be fraught with problems, not least that it would not affect spams sent from abroad. And spammers, as every ISP knows by now, are notoriously difficult to track down: they use every trick in the book to disguise the computers from which they operate.

The junk fax law allows consumers to sue violators for between $500 and $1,500 for each unwanted fax received. In the case of the e-mail scam, so far 26 states have passed anti-spam laws; Delaware bans the unsolicited sending of e-mail, and in Virginia it is a felony punishable by up to five years in prison to send more than 10,000 copies of any unwanted e-mail. But if just one recipient out of 100,000 hands over money as a result of spam, then spamming can remain profitable.

All this is why, before the problem gets totally out of hand and brings internet communication to a halt, the companies are desperately trying to crack down. AOL has launched an intense legal assault, suing a dozen spammers last month alone; while another big American ISP, EarthLink, has launched more than 100 lawsuits. Despite the problems in securing convictions, a man known as the "Buffalo Spammer" was recently ordered to pay EarthLink $16.4m in damages; he had sent more than 825 million unwanted e-mails since March 2002. Last year, one K C Smith of Tennessee was ordered to pay $25bn to EarthLink, none of which has so far been collected; in evidence, it came out that he had sent more than one billion spams.

The filters that the companies use and update every day do not just fail to catch misspelt words. "Make Fast Cash" - three typical words in a spam and obvious candidates to be filtered out - can become M*A*K*E F*A*S*T C*A*S*H, and thus missable by filters. Pornographic pictures are notoriously hard to catch by even the most sophisticated software, and can easily be confused with an innocent picture of, say, a baby. There is another problem, too: a legitimate e-mail with the words "Virgin Islands" in its subject line is likely to be filtered out, sometimes angering customers. So it is hard - if not downright impossible - for the ISPs to win the intense cyber-battle.

The biggest problem of all in the spam war, alas, is that recipients sometimes really do shell out money to buy bigger penis pills or to get out of debt. One survey estimated that no fewer than 37 per cent of recipients had at some time bought something offered by spam e-mails.

If that figure is remotely correct, it makes spamming potentially profitable, and something that consumers dictate should stay. Another statistic, however, belies this one: 13 per cent of customers have already changed their e-mail addresses this year to avoid the dreaded spam.

And so the ferocious cyberspace arms race here continues, with each side in the spam business desperately trying to outwit the other every day. Legitimate advertising by e-mail last year generated $1.4bn. And spam profits? They are hard to estimate. But some people, somewhere, are daily making profits from what Monty Python so memorably called Spam, Spam, Spam: an unappetising meal in its original form, but positively atrocious for all of us in its present one.