Business News

Fighting Junk with Spunk

Local companies offer an array of anti-spam services to outsmart crafty, bulk e-mailers.

Chances are you instantly delete the e-mails advertising "V!agra" at rock bottom prices or hot OTC "stox" that probably clog your inbox each day. But there are Internet neophytes who haven't learned the ropes of cyberspace and are easily suckered into those ubiquitous Internet scams. Spammers are still in operation because their marketing strategy is still effective, even if less than 1 percent of the time.

Spam is not only a nuisance anymore but has also become quite an expensive problem to solve. Accordingly, local companies are doing their best to ratchet up their services to meet the growing demand for e-mail filtering.

Companies cannot afford the risk of having unsecure networks. For one, spam can eat up precious bandwidth and network resources, causing a company to incur extra expenses. "If you have a company with 500 employees and they are all receiving multiple spam messages per day, the network can become sluggish and/or bandwidth charges can increase," says Bo White, co-owner of Baton Rouge IT solutions firm Click Here Publishing. "And the time it takes to receive, check, read and delete spam messages several times a day lowers employee productivity." Also, inexperienced employees may not delete spam, and thousands of megabytes can become inadvertently used up, which could in turn slow down and/or damage the computer.

Spammers employ a myriad of tactics to disseminate unsolicited e-mails ' from buying lists of e-mail addresses off the black market to changing the spelling of key words to outsmart spam blockers. As anti-spam experts change their filters to reflect trends in unsolicited e-mails, spammers accordingly alter their e-mails to outfox those same filters. It has turned into a high tech cat-and-mouse game.

One of the most infamous spammers makes his home in Louisiana. Ron Scelson, the so-called "Cajun spammer," runs Slidell-based marketing firm Cajunnet, which sends 100 million unsolicited e-mails a day from overseas.

Scelson proves spam is an international, domestic and even local problem that has merited the attention of all businesses. In view of those threats, a significant amount of local IT solutions firms' business has focused on messaging security in recent years. "One of our clients is Latter & Blum," says Ivan MacDonald, vice president of Camsoft Data Systems. "They receive on average 6,000 e-mails every hour, and 5,100 of those e-mails are spam."

For New Orleans-based Latter & Blum, which has Lafayette operations, e-mails are the most convenient and cost effective method of communication; yet, correspondence has often been stymied by a constant flood of spam clogging its employees' inboxes. "It's unreal. Sometimes, you have to sift through hundreds of spam messages before you could get to your e-mails," says Jerry Phillips, manager of information services at Latter & Blum.

"I've set aside time in the morning and in the afternoon to clear my inbox of junk mail," says Sterling Lejeune, a commercial agent with Latter & Blum in Lafayette. The software is working, he says, but spam is still worming its way into his box. "Not only does it lower employee productivity, but it's tiring to have to clean out that stuff each day."

Another of MacDonald's local customers is Kergan Brothers, a Lafayette-based franchisee of 43 Sonic Drive-Ins in south Louisiana. "Once we got Camsoft involved with blocking all the garbage, it really helped us run much leaner," says Gary Wilkerson, president of Kergan Brothers. "It also takes out a lot of the fear of the unknown. It's great to have a watchdog out there."

That kind of peace of mind is driving the profits of companies like Camsoft. "One of the bright sides is that a whole multimillion dollar industry has been built around spam prevention," says McDonald. The most common method has been to install anti-virus/anti-spam software such as McAfee or Norton Antivirus on company computers.

Lafayette Consolidated Government uses GFI MailEssentials, anti-spam software that sits on its main e-mail server. "Spam has been a major problem for us, and it's problem that has only increased in the last four years," says Ryan Mire, technical services supervisor at LCG. According to Mire, 95 percent of e-mails LCG receives are spam, and the new software is blocking the majority of that unsolicited traffic.

Companies can also hire an independent mail-hosting company to track spamming trends, manage the mail server and update their message filters daily. Local IT solutions firms often contract their message filtering services out to these companies. Click Here Publishing uses Rackspace Managed Hosting. "It is much more cost effective for us to allow them to incur the cost of hiring the engineers and purchasing and maintaining the expensive software and hardware that is required," says White.

Another option is to install anti-spam hardware that blocks the passage of unwanted e-mails into the network. Anti-spam hardware combines spam prevention, anti-virus protection and general e-mail security into one piece of machinery, which is cheaper and easier to maintain. Such convenience explains why appliances are the fastest growing sector in the messaging security industry.

In spite of the advances in anti-spam hardware, appliances are not always compatible with portable devices such as Treos and BlackBerrys, which are how many people are doing business these days. "It is one thing to have to filter e-mail on your PC at work, but another to have to do it on your cell phone. These phones are supposed to make you more productive, not less productive. Having to check 100 spam messages daily is not the ideal situation," says White. In the end, there is no surefire method to block all spam. Experts think there will always be spam to some degree, just like junk mail. However, with the right technology, it does not have to be the crippling torrent that posed a serious threat just a few years ago.

Local professionals say the ultimate responsibility of reducing e-mail spam falls to the user; everyone must learn how to self-filter to help the software recognize spam. They offer a few tips: Do not open e-mail you suspect is spam. Never click "unsubscribe" on an unsolicited e-mail because spammers use that function to identify valid e-mail addresses. Turn off the html option on your mail server so you can spot text hidden behind Web site graphics. Try not use your work e-mail for personal messages and, most important, never release your e-mail unless it is necessary.

A version of this story first appeared in Baton Rouge's Business Report.