By Thomas Claburn
Security Pipeline Tue Nov 29, 9:00 AM ET
Trickery and technology both play key roles in managing spam,
according to a study released yesterday by the Federal Trade
The agency looked at three aspects of spamming and efforts to control
it: the automated harvesting of E-mail addresses on public areas of
the Internet; using E-mail address masking to reduce address
harvesting; and the effectiveness of spam filtering by Internet
To conduct its five-week study, the FTC established 50 test E-mail
accounts at each of three separate ISPs; two used spam filters and one
didn't. It also posted 50 E-mail addresses on various Web sites, chat
rooms, message boards, USENET groups, and blogs.
Sure enough, spammers harvested many of those addresses and spammed
them. However, addresses posted in chat rooms, message boards, USENET
groups, and blogs proved less likely to be harvested than those on
general Web sites. The FTC noted that some chat room operators took
active steps to prevent E-mail address harvesting from online areas
under their supervision. E-mail address harvesting qualifies as an
aggravated violation of the Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited
Pornography and Marketing Act of 2003 (CAN-SPAM).
The study concluded that E-mail address masking is an effective way to
reduce spam. During the course of the study, unmasked E-mail addresses
received over 6,400 spam messages, while only one spam message reached
masked E-mail addresses. Also known as "munging," masking is the
long-standing practice of altering an E-mail address so that it's
readable by people but improperly formatted for machines, such as
"tclaburn at cmp dot com."
However, the effectiveness of address masking is not foolproof,
particularly if a simple masking method (such as the one above) is
used. The FTC observed that at least one harvesting program appeared
to be able to capture masked addresses and translate them into a
useable form by converting the words "at" and "dot" into their
While the FTC concludes address masking is an effective tactic to
prevent spam, some Internet users argue the practice diminishes the
Internet's functionality for the sake of personal gain.
The study also underscores the utility of ISP-based filtering. After
five weeks, E-mail accounts at the ISP with no filter received 8,885
spam messages. The accounts at the ISPs that filtered received 1,208
spam messages (over 86% blocked) and 422 spam messages (over 95%
The FTC did not disclose the makers of the two spam filters used in
the study. But it did note that the difference between the two ISPs'
block rates is not necessarily a reflection of superior technology
because the study does not address whether the filtering resulted in
any false positives (legitimate messages mistaken for spam).
An FTC spokesperson was not immediately available for comment.
Copyright 2005 CMP Media LLC.
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