Infernal spam: Blocking e-mails constant struggle
06-16-2007, Tulsa World - Robert Evatt . . . 16_238_E1_spanc61700
Spam isn't going away any time soon.

Despite the recent arrest of Robert Alan Soloway, a New York resident accused of being among the 10 most prolific spammers in the world, don't expect even a dent in unsolicited e-mail, say computer experts such as Gavin Manes, a research assistant professor at the University of Tulsa and president of Digital Forensics Professionals Inc.

"Someone will just take his place," Manes said. "Companies will pay for spam; it's too attractive."

The pitches for pyramid schemes, shady real estate and pornography will continue to plague local businesses in ever-evolving ways. But nowadays, the fight against spam has become as routine for offices as buying paper for the copy machine.

"Spam is still a tremendous problem, though there have been some developments with tools that businesses can use to make the problem a lot better," said Christopher Smith, one of the owners of SixByte Computer Solutions.

The tools may be effective, but for businesses like Bank of Oklahoma that run their own e-mail servers, they can be expensive. Brian Foster, senior vice president of information security at BOk, said a system to protect the company's 3,000 to 6,000 unique addresses costs $30,000 to $50,000.

Foster declined to reveal which system BOk uses, citing security reasons. But he said the system includes software and mail servers to handle the endless barrage of messages, and it operates automatically for the most part.

"In the past, the whole IT group would handle the spam ourselves, but now the software handles most of it," Foster said. "It takes less than a tenth of one full-time employee to maintain."

But businesses can't just sit back and rely on existing filters for years to come, Smith said. Spammers keep finding new ways to alter their spam to mimic normal messages and slip past security measures.

"As spammers get smarter and smarter, they find ways around it," he said.

One new way for spam to pierce protected systems is to send the advertisement through an image, which doesn't trigger filters that scan for key words and phrases in the content, Manes said.

"When I first got (image spam), I knew that would be the next big thing," he said. "There's still no real way to read the content in a digital image yet."

Smith said businesses at the very least need access to someone who can work with the spam filter, if not a full-time employee who knows how to work the complex system. And even BOk's filtering system relies on daily updates to keep abreast of the latest techniques, Foster said.

Still, spam fighting has become so common that nearly all e-mail systems already come with at least some form of spam filtering, such as shifting likely spam into a bulk mail folder, Smith said.

Companies can also add additional filters, either on the servers or on the recipients' desktops, that keep employees from seeing spam at all. Some newer programs allow the recipients to set their own parameters and control how much spam they see.

However, the stronger the filtering system, the more likely legitimate e-mail will be flagged as spam and deleted, Smith said.

"You always have the possibility of blocking legitimate e-mail with a centralized server, but without it the user gets more spam," he said.

But with the sheer volume of spam, doing nothing is not an option for businesses, Smith said.

"I have a customer with 15 e-mail addresses on a spam monitoring tool, and over the course of a weekend he processed 40,000 e-mails."