Join the Fight Against Spam The Buzz


They're popping up in your inbox more and more every day -- those annoying ads that clog e-mail systems, annoy Internet users and offend many. But can spam -- and the fight against it -- also create jobs?

Spam is a huge issue for computer users worldwide. Also known as "junk e-mail," it casts a dark cloud over the Internet. But there is a silver lining -- the fight against spam is creating exciting new jobs.

Two of the key players in the fight against spam are computer security experts and makers of anti-spam software. Computer security experts can be employees of companies, or may work as independent consultants.

"Has it created jobs? Yes," says Gregory Evans. He's a computer security consultant. "Will it create more jobs? Yes. Why? Because spam is never going away."

Not only is spam never going away, it has also become part of a much bigger issue. Spam increasingly involves a wide range of cyber threats such as spyware, viruses and identity theft scams.

"Spam is just a euphemism for a much bigger problem," says Neil Schwartzman. He's executive director of the Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial Email (CAUCE).

"Clearly it isn't getting under control," says Schwartzman. "Spam is an ever-growing problem."

Schwartzman says that between 80 and 97 percent of all e-mail is spam. You never see most of it because ISPs (Internet Service Providers) filter billions of spam messages every day.

"For every spam message that you see, there are 10 that you don't," says Schwartzman. "It's beyond a problem or annoyance. It's something that threatens not only the e-mail infrastructure -- you can actually take entire countries offline. So what we're talking about when we say 'spam' is a threat to the very fundaments of the Internet."

Spammers are not only increasing in number, they're becoming more sophisticated.

"They are as professional as any software company can be," says Schwartzman. "Don't think for a moment that this is two kids in their parents' basement. This is real big business. Spammers make a lot of money."

Evans agrees. "Cyber crime generates more revenue than all drug trafficking," he says. "But we don't hear about it because there are not enough people out there to investigate these cyber crimes."

There's so much money to be made that organized crime is heavily involved in spam, says Schwartzman. The criminal organizations are mostly located in overseas countries that do little to oversee the Internet.

"The nature of spam changed several years ago... when grassroots spammers became affiliated with organized crime and took it up a notch," says Schwartzman. "Now they're very, very professional spammers."

One way that spammers get e-mail addresses is by using web crawlers. These are software programs that can be used to scour the Internet, sucking up any e-mail addresses they find on websites.

Cyber criminals are endlessly inventive, always coming up with new ways to separate people from their money and/or personal information.

Here's an example offered by Evans. A spammer creates a funny message that you're encouraged to send to all of your friends. If any of those friends hit "reply all," then the spammer's e-mail address will be within that list of recipients. Now the spammer has all of your friends' e-mail addresses.

Here's the scary part. The cyber criminal can now send a message to all of your friends and make it look like it's really coming from you. The message might say, "You'll never believe it, but I got married, and here's a picture!"

"When they click that link, they now have spyware on their machines and they don't even know it's on their machines," says Evans.

Once the spyware is on your computer, none of your information is safe. Your entire identity can be stolen, and your bank accounts can be emptied. Criminals can use spam to install spyware that will read your computer files and track your keystrokes. Or they can fool you into giving them your banking information.

"Rather than selling you placebo pills, they go into your bank account and take everything," says Schwartzman. "Why take $40 when you can take $400 or $40,000?"

Spammers will try anything to separate you from your money or private information. They will even exploit tragedies.

"The earthquake in Haiti drove up the volume of scam and phishing messages in January 2010 as spammers used the tragic event for their benefit," notes a February 2010 report by anti-spam software maker Symantec (phishing involves tricking people into giving their personal information).

Following a tragedy such as the one in Haiti, seemingly genuine requests for donations from legitimate charities arrive in e-mail inboxes. But guess what happens? "When users send their donation, the money disappears into an offshore bank account," the report says.

Fighting spam and related threats is a growing industry. The best training to become a computer security consultant is a certificate course in information technology (IT) that gives you hands on, up-to-the-minute training. Today, most post-secondary schools offer intensive IT courses, and some specialize in computer and network security. It's even possible to attain a PhD in computer security.

"When a person graduates from college... they're not going to apply to be an e-mail spam fighter, but a cyber-crime fighter or computer security expert, which does a little of everything," says Evans.

Anti-spam software companies employ programmers to write software code. They usually have a degree in computer programming. Similarly, information security specialists ensure that software code for networks and websites are hacker-proof.

It's a big challenge to filter spam. That's why there's always some slipping through, no matter what anti-spam software someone uses. "The spam filters sometimes can't distinguish between what's spam and what's real," explains Evans.

"What it's really going to take is not just spam filters, it's going to take international law enforcement," says Schwartzman. "The Net is such a wonderful, cool place, but it really is infested with criminals."

Sondra Schneider is seeing a growing number of information security specialists becoming employed by companies. She trains network and security professionals.

"I think there's a big demand for risk professionals [and] security professionals," says Schneider. "For every thousand people [employed by a company], there was one security person, and now we're seeing two or two-and-a-half security people for every 1,000 people in an enterprise."

Schneider recommends that aspiring information security professionals earn a certificate from a college or IT school.

"A certificate will take you as far as you need to go," says Schneider. "Having a degree is good but it won't teach you what you need to do. Even if they had a computer science background they would need a certificate regardless."

Those on the frontlines of this anti-spam battle can rest assured that their services will be in demand for a long time to come.

"It's always going to get worse," says Evans. "The reason why is, by the time someone comes out with some software or new technology to stop spam, the bad guys who are doing it are already a step ahead."

Links

Spam Filter Review
A collection of statistics about spam

The Anti-Spam Home Page
Includes a list of do's and don'ts

E-mail Spam
Definitions and explanations