MAAWG documents spam statistics stalemate

Spam volume remains steady at about 90%, according to spam statistics from industry group.

SAN FRANCISCO -- Spam continues to plague the Internet at a steady pace, accounting for about 90% of all email sent, according to spam statistics released Tuesday by the Messaging Anti-Abuse Working Group (MAAWG) at its general meeting in San Francisco. 

"We've been sitting at a stalemate for probably two to three years ... Taking out the highs and the lows, we're sitting at 90%."

Jerry Upton, Executive Director Messaging, Anti-Abuse Working Group

MAAWG, an industry group with a membership that includes some of the largest Internet service providers (ISPs) and email providers, gathers spam data on a quarterly basis from major service providers and produces the only spam statistics to come directly from ISPs. Despite a small drop in the last quarter of 2009, the amount of email tagged or blocked as "abusive" by service providers consistently hovers around 90%, said Jerry Upton, MAAWG executive director. The spam volume data is based on more than 500 million mailboxes and 200 billion delivered emails.

"We've been sitting at a stalemate for probably two to three years," Upton said during a media luncheon. "Taking out the highs and the lows, we're sitting at 90%."

ISPs and email providers reported a peak of 94.2% of abusive email in the last quarter of 2008, according to MAAWG. In the last quarter of 2009, they reported 87.6% of email was spam or other unwanted email. 

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If ISPs, email providers and others weren't working hard and spending money to combat spam, the problem would be much worse, Upton said. "This is the percentage getting caught in the network."

Sandy Jensen, architect of the antispam technology group at Mountain View, Cailf.-based Symantec Corp., said Symantec's spam statistics are about the same as MAAWG's, with 80% to 90% of spam coming from botnets. "Bots still represent the vast majority of spam out there," he said during a MAAWG conference panel.

Criminals using botnets to spread spam is a marked change from 2004, when MAAWG started, Upton said: "The change is really around what resources the bad guys are using, which are other people's computers."

The amount of spam has risen to new heights since the shutdown of the rogue ISP McColo in November 2008, reaching a peak of 400 billion messages on Jan. 28, said Nilesh Bhandari, product manager for the Cisco IronPort email security product line at Cisco Systems Inc.

The company sees spam volumes growing in regions where broadband use is increasing, he said. It's also seeing an increase in targeted attacks, which are particularly challenging to detect because they're "low volume and fly under the radar," Bhandari said. 

"It's like looking for a needle in a haystack," he added.

Examples of targeted attacks include spear phishing attacks on corporate executives and SMS phishing attacks that try to steal personal information by duping local banking customers into calling an automated phone system, he said.

MAAWG gives email providers and others a way to put aside competitive issues to share information and better fight online criminals, Upton said. This week's three-day MAAWG meeting is focused on how to improve end-user protection against messaging abuse, and includes roundtables and closed-door discussions on Web browser security, authentication and wireless messaging abuse.

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