We all know the scene. You open up your email account and the first job that’s presented to you is to wade through the latest collection of spam emails in an attempt to find a message of any value at all.

You’ve probably also thought to yourself on more than one occasion “who actually buys this stuff?” Of course, there must be somebody who responds to these messages, that’s why you’re getting them right?

Well yes. Last week a survey revealed that as many as one in three people have responded to a spam email message at some stage, with 12% of those who did respond doing so knowing that the message was an unsolicited ‘spam’ advertisement.

Spam is huge business, even if the response rate is pitifully low and with spam filters than come packaged with many antivirus software packages filtering out significant amounts of malicious emails, many spammers are generating revenues well into seven figures.

In November 2008, researchers from the University of California in San Diego found that even with a response rate of 0.00001%, spammers could generate sales in excess of $1million. As part of their own research, the university used a now defunct spam network to send 350m spam emails, generating only 28 “sales” and $2,731.88. The researchers concluded that running a larger scale campaign could have generated annual sales of as much as $3.5m.

Those figures also don’t take into account other forms of spam – most notably phishing scams designed to steal a victim’s personal identity which can prove even more lucrative and can generate even higher responses.

Email spam is either outlawed or severely restricted throughout the European Union and at least 19 other nations, with the biggest offenders in the US receiving multi-million dollar fines and even prison sentences, so why has nobody been able to stop it?

Well, the complexities of international law don’t help. There’s little to stop the most determined spammers moving to territories where email communications are either poorly restricted or where regulations are poorly enforced.

Other factors are down to the simplicity in which spam email campaigns can be launched. Most spam is distributed from networks of hacker-controlled computers known as “botnets”. These networks are often made up of PCs that have previously been affected by a virus or worm and are used to automatically relay spam messages, allowing the spammer to increase the reach of their advertisement with very minimal effort.

Unfortunately, spam is unlikely to ever go away completely. All that the average user can do is wise themselves up to the tricks that spammers use, install antivirus software that includes a spam filter and watch out for any emails that look untrustworthy.

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