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Last Updated: Wednesday, 2 July, 2003, 09:01 GMT 10:01 UK
MPs uncover seedy world of spam

by Jackie Storer
BBC News Online political staff

Junk e-mails
Many spammers are 'prolific fraudsters'
It can be news that you have won a prize of thousands of pounds or details of how you can earn more cash.

On a more personal level, it could be encouraging you to get some kind of anatomical enlargement.

Yes, the junk email that plagues our inboxes, is usually unwanted and often pornographic.

Spam, as it is known, is the intrusive, unsolicited, usually offensive downside of being an internet user.

According to MessageLabs, spam accounted for just 2.3% of e-mails a year ago - the figure for May was 55%.

If America goes for an opt out law, I think the spam problem will go through the roof. It will literally explode
Steve Linford
Spamhaus Project

With statistics like this in mind, and the likelihood of an ever increasing expansion in its proliferation, the All Party Parliamentary Internet Group called a "spam summit" ahead of an in-depth inquiry.

Here, interested groups were told how investigators from the Spamhaus Project are routinely threatened with death and injury for their efforts to shutdown the internet's worst spammers.

They also heard how more than a third of all unwanted e-mails received by children were hardcore pornography.

At best spam is annoying intrusion, clogging up inboxes with messages that have to be thrown away
Stephen Timms
E-commerce Minister

E-commerce Minister Stephen Timms said the Westminster summit could not be more timely, with the UK set to implement a European Union directive that will make unsolicited e-mails illegal across member states.

But it was the chilling evidence of Steve Linford head of the Spamhaus Project that really made members of the summit sit up and listen.

He said the project's team of 12 investigators had tracked down 200 of the worst spammers, responsible for 90% of all unsolicited e-mails, and registered them on its ROKSO database of known spam operations.

'Prolific fraudsters'

To be eligible for registration, the guilty have to have been thrown off three consecutive internet service providers (ISPs) for spamming.

"These guys are prolific fraudsters. They have been at it for years. They have been thrown off ISP after ISP," said Mr Linford.

They have got criminal records as long as your arm - they have no intention of stopping whatever the law says
Steve Linford
Spamhaus Project

The investigators' work focuses on identifying the spammers, tracking them back and finding their names and addresses, he says.

"We dredge up everything, including their criminal records, everything that a judge would need for a prosecution.

"We get a lot of threats from them.

"They have got criminal records as long as your arm - they have no intention of stopping whatever the law says."

Threats

The ROKSO operation, obviously upsets the spammers, says Mr Linford.

"They get on the phone ... We are told we are going to be killed, we are going to have our throats cut, a lot of this stuff."

Computer mouse
Spam is a mere click of the mouse away

In October, the UK is set to implement an EU directive with strict new rules to try to curb unwanted and unsolicited emails.

Mr Linford says while he thinks the EU proposals are a "very good" attempt at trying to stop the spammers, he expressed doubts about plans in the US for an "opt out" law.

He warned that the whole e-mail system could go into meltdown next year if American legislation is passed that will make spam legal unless the receiver has opted out of receiving it.

"If America goes for an opt out law, I think the spam problem will go through the roof. It will literally explode."

E-commerce minister Mr Timms said the EU directive will bring in a new requirement for "opt in consent" for unsolicited emails.

Sophisticated

This means businesses will only be able to send unsolicited commercial e-mails to people with their consent.

Mr Timms said spammers were getting "more sophisticated" at hiding their identity.

"The directive stipulates that the sender must have obtained the addresses details fairly," said Mr Timms.

We believe to limit the dangers internet service providers which allow children to have web addresses should use the best possible anti-spam software
John Carr
NCH Action for Children

The sender must not hide their identity and must provide valid contact details. This will also apply to text messages to mobiles, said Mr Timms.

"I think the directive is likely to be a particularly effective way of dealing with this."

The minister argued that "at best" spam was an "annoy intrusion clogging up inboxes with messages that have to be thrown away".

"Spam with pornographic content can cause serious offence, for example if its picked up by children," he said.

Paedophiles

Mr Timms said: "We are not going to set ourselves up as censors, but equally we don't want to see potential users scared off the internet because of fear of spam."

John Carr, internet consultant at NCH Action for Children, said internet companies should do more to stop inappropriate e-mail addresses being offered to children.

"Hardly a week seems to go by without another appalling case reaching the courts where a child has been sexually assaulted by a paedophile they first met online," he said.

"We believe to limit the dangers internet service providers which allow children to have web addresses should use the best possible anti-spam software."

Enrique Salem, president of Brightmail, the secure messaging experts, said in May it saw 63bn messages - 48% of which were spam.

Public inquiry

He said spam had increased by 500% over the last two years.

"I think there is no silver bullet from a technological perspective - there isn't one answer," he said.

He said a combined effort by legitimate companies involved in direct marketing, technology, ISPs and legislation can serve as a deterrent to spammers.

"The technology will have to enable us to identify the legitimate direct marketers. If they want to be able to send a message into your inbox, they are going to need to be willing to be identified.

"If you are not willing to be identified, you will be classified as a spammer," said Mr Salem.

The All Party Parliamentary Group public inquiry into spam will take evidence from industry, government and the public in the House of Commons on 3 and 10 July.




SEE ALSO:
Spam e-mail costs add up
30 Jun 03  |  Technology
Half of all e-mails are spam
31 May 03  |  Technology
Spam celebrates silver jubilee
04 May 03  |  Technology
Government to crack down on spam
06 May 03  |  Technology
Net giants take on spam
28 Apr 03  |  Technology
Where spam comes from
24 Apr 03  |  Technology
How to spot and stop spam
26 May 03  |  Technology


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