Can technology control the accelerating spam-demic?
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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.
"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.
"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.
"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.