You've Got (Too Much) Mail

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Can technology control the accelerating spam-demic?

by Robert W. Scott

The figurative pile of email messages that once filled Doris Higgins' mailbox with the usual mound of Viagra ads, mortgage offers, and more, had become more than just a nuisance. It was a problem that drained her time and the company's resources.

Partner Insights

"I'd manage 100 pieces of email every morning, and then another 50 to 100 pieces during the rest of the day," says Higgins, network administrator for Donaldson, Holman & West, a Birmingham, Ala.-based CPA firm. Many accountants receive a larger daily barrage of electronic messages. Many receive less. But for everyone in a business fueled by hourly billing, the amount of time their staff spends managing and pruning email costs money. Like many others, Higgins has calculated out the value of the lost time.

"We figured we were spending up to $4,000 worth of billable time each week," says Higgins. That's the amount of time spent by all employees in a firm that reaches an employee level of about 50 during tax season, and about 25 to 30 the rest of the year.

Over and over, the complaints from other firms validate Higgins' experience-email represents more than an annoyance and perhaps an affront to some sensitivities. It costs firms a lot of money.

Email Management VendorsAfinety
Los Angeles, Calif.
(877) 423-4638
www.afinety.com

Ipswitch
Lexington, Mass.
(781) 676-5700
www.ipswitch.com

Sprint
Dallas, Texas
(877) 700-8919
www.sprintbiz.com

StorageTek
Louisville, Colo.
(800) 877-9220
www.storagetek.com

Xcentric Group
Alpharetta, Ga.
(678) 297-0066 x 301
www.xcentricgroup.com

Many practitioners try to use the tools built into email systems, whether Microsoft Exchange or the Lotus Notes system used by Higgins' firm. She spent two days setting up rules in Lotus Notes to control the electronic flood. She could have spent her time better elsewhere.

"For a day or two, I noticed a difference," she says. But soon, the level of problem mail reached or exceeded the amount received before she tried to block it. To resolve the issue, Higgins turned to the Verity Messaging Control System from the Xcentric Group, an Alpharetta, Ga.-based company that specializes in selling networking programs to CPA firms.

Verity, launched in April, took care of the stream. Surprisingly, Higgins found that about 73 percent of all mail hitting the firm's e-mail server was spam or viruses. Even though the company has what it considered to be effective anti-virus software, a large amount evaded the gatekeeper.

The methodology used by Xcentric follows a fairly common practice. It must address false positives, legitimate messages that the system flags as spam.

"We don't delete the email," notes Trey James, Xcentric's president. Messages are held by the company's servers, where users can inspect them. The fact that this procedure is available to larger organizations is no fluke. James notes, "We are trying to extend large-firm technology to the small practice."

Xcentric charges $4 per user per month for Verity. The company says that set-up fees are minimal. Client email is re-routed through "control towers" and can be compared to both white lists and black lists.

The High Cost of Spam

Higgins' estimate of the cost of unwanted email, or at least of managing email of all kinds at the desktop level, seems in line with the experiences of other practitioners. It all translates into lost hours.

"I would not be surprised if the number for manager and senior employees was closer to one hour per day, as this is the minimum amount of time that I normally spend," says Roman Kepczyk, president of Info Tech Partners North America, a Phoenix-based firm that provides technology consulting services to accounting firms.

What the Big Guys Do

Managing email is not just a matter of blocking spam and viruses. It also involves preventing messages from eroding a company's storage, according to StorageTek, a Louisville, Colo.-based company that makes a business of storage.
StorageTek says estimates show that the flood of email will not decrease. In fact, it is expected to grow by 92 percent to 100 percent annually. However, the company's systems are beyond the grasp of all but the biggest accounting firms-its typical end user has 1,000 mailboxes. Still, the technology offered by StorageTek is the kind many smaller organizations would probably like to have.
In the words of Bill Tolson, the company's storage solutions marketing manager, the company's Xcelerator system offers life-cycle management of all contact records, storage management, and surveillance. The product uses StorageTek's hierarchical management system, meaning that as information gets older and less valuable, it is moved to storage that is usually slower and less expensive. Data is moved from disk-based servers to tape storage.
All messages move off the email server after 30 days, and are archived elsewhere. The system moves them, but does not delete them, so that users still see the messages in their inboxes. It's just that the message itself does not reside on the enterprise's email server.
"Most end users don't even know it's been archived," says Tolson. Xcelerator is a bit pricey for organizations other than large firms. For a 1,000-mailbox company, the Email Archive Manager installation would cost $5,000 for the license, while installation of the Email Content Manager would cost $40 per mailbox.
Tolson says email management represents many of the same issues found with managing paper documents. Most users will spend 30 hours per year looking for emails that "they will never find," says Tolson. Meanwhile, IT departments will spend 10 to 20 hours rebuilding emails, looking for them on network drives.
Another problem: Email messages with attachments eat up storage. A single file with a 1MB attachment sent to 10 people represents only 1MB storage on the system. But if those 10 each forward the message separately to 10 more recipients, the system loses 10MB.

Kepczyk says that concern about spam dwarfs other email issues. Most organizations have stopped trying to limit the amount of mail saved on their servers because of the continuing decline in the cost of storage.

"I think that most firms are just buying more disk space and letting the maintenance go," he says. But while they ignore storage and maintenance, firms try mightily-but often in vain-to control the nuisance flood. "I don't think that anyone is happy with the products available," Kepczyk says.

Or consider the deluge received by Dana "Rick" Richardson, a former Big Six accountant, who has spent the last two decades giving his predictions about the direction of technology. In Richardson's case, the flow is astronomical because email to his company's Web site is dumped to his email box. He receives an average of 1,000 messages each day.

Still, he feels that the situation can be controlled through SpamFire, a $29 application for the Macintosh computers he favors. For that price, "they give you ten years of updates to the filters," he says. If an unwanted message gets through, "you shoot it to them and say, 'Check this,' and it's in the filter definitions tomorrow," he continues.

Richardson also has insight into one reason that so much pornography gets past software watchdogs. Spammers frequently send information in JPEG files, so that offending words that the anti-spam software uses to determine which messages are taboo are contained in the file. Good anti-spam software, says Richardson, opens the JPEGs and inspects the contents for key words.

But few feel as in control as Richardson, and the technologies used to block spam cover a wide range, perhaps because none seem to work ideally. Black lists, white lists, firewalls, network-based controls, ISP-based controls-computer users have enlisted all imaginable strategies to deflect spammers and hackers, and as Higgins' case makes clear, the virus and spam flow are generally inseparable.

Microsoft highlighted the urgency of the issue in its June action to sue 15 large spammers, companies that it alleges not only clog recipients' mailboxes, but allegedly attempt to deceive customers. Microsoft says the group has sent more than 2 billion unsolicited emails to MSN and Hotmail users.

In the transcript of an interview posted on Microsoft's Web site (www.microsoft.com), lawyer Tom Cranton notes, "The long-term solution to eradicating spam involves more than just enforcement, but enforcement is a critical piece of the solution." Cranton, who is responsible for Microsoft's anti-spam legal strategy, continues, "In the long term, Microsoft feels very strongly that the spam problem requires a multi-pronged strategy that involves not just enforcement, but new technology, strong anti-spam legislation, and the development of industry best practices for legitimate commercial emailers."

Besides using technology, firms must use common sense and enforceable policies to go hand in hand with technology systems, says David Primes, a partner with Sobul, Primes & Schenkel, based in Los Angeles. Primes' firm uses FireBox, a system on its virtual public network that has a spam screen. "It isn't working as well as we had hoped," he notes. "The spammers are faster than we are."

One problem is that CPA firms routinely place partner and manager email addresses on their Web site. This attracts spammers, but it also attracts clients.

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