Spam gangs invading Toronto, says expert

As a rising number of U.S. Internet service providers ban spam services and states outlaw distribution of stealth spam software, 'spam gangs' are finding facilities to shill online in Canada, according to a group of antispammers.

"Canada has had a growing problem with Chinese spam gangs operating from the Toronto area since 1998," reads the report by London-based author Steve Linford, volunteer for The Spamhaus Project, a database that tracks known spam gangs, spam support services and which lists providers who host spamming services on their networks.

Linford, who didn't respond to a request for an interview on Monday, names several Toronto-based spam gangs in the report and explains how these gangs came to exist in Canada.

"Spam gangs exist by ensuring spam is bulked out through "blind" relays (badly misconfigured, or deliberately misconfigured mail servers which don't record the sender's IP address) leaving no evidence in spams traceable back to them. In the late 90s providers began banning the hosting of spam support services -- on the basis of visible evidence of network abuse services being supplied -- realizing that spam support sites were run by the spammers themselves and were the root and fuel of the Internet's spam problem," says the report.

Neil Schwartzman, Canadian director of the Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial E-mail (CAUCE), agreed with the study's findings, and said the root of Canada's problem lies in its culture.

"Canada is always a little behind the times and our ISPs for some reason seem to be rather unresponsive," he said from Montreal. "The level of responsiveness has the same background as it does with American companies. You start with ignorance, where an ISP will sign someone up without realizing they are spammers. Then there is greed -- companies that sign large contracts with spammers and basically they crunch the numbers and say that (the complaints are worth it.)"Schwartzman said he thought only about half of the actual spammers would be Canadian companies, with the other half likely coming from countries like China, Brazil and Korea.

What makes it much easier for these companies in this country is that Canadian ISPs have started seeing help desks as little more than cost centers, and cutting them as a result, leading to longer response times for complaints, Schwartzman explained. When companies realize that being equipped with spam-fighting tools makes them more attractive to customers, spam in Canada will ease, he added.

"They have all pretty much attained cheap pricing and access," Schwartzman said. "Measures to deal with spam will become a selling point."

A December study by Stamford, Connecticut-based Gartner Inc. identifies numerous kinds of spam and says that even the best kind of spam-blocking tools on the market only go so far. The study concludes that, in 2002, only five percent of enterprises will successfully block 90 percent of malicious spam.

But do Canadians actually see spam as a problem, or just an annoyance that comes with having the convenience of e-mail? Trevor Mills, a Toronto-based freelance software designer, said the 20 or so spam e-mails he receives every day bug him, but only for as long as it takes him to delete them.

"The e-mail addresses are strange and the title are things like 'Earn Extra Money' or 'Download Porn'," he said. "I should have always had a junk e-mail address, but I didn't before. I do now."

Mills, who lumps spam in the same category as telemarketing, said government should regulate all unsolicited marketing, and make it illegal to promote products or services without a specific demographic in mind.

"It's uninvited solicitation," he said. "And as soon as you make it known that you don't want spam e-mail, they know your e-mail address is valid and just send you more."

Schwartzman, who has just finished an analysis of the 4,600 spam messages he received last year, said he now finds the entire subject "depressing."

"Control of your e-mail box can be attained in a number of different ways," he said, adding that there are different kinds of spam. "There are mainstream companies who will play fast and loose with your address and there are the small-time spammers who will abuse your address."

Using tagged or disposable e-mail addresses are the best way to weed out the mainstream, he explained.

"But the spam that most people recognize and are concerned about is the low-rent stuff," Schwartzman said. "They get your e-mail address when you submit it to a Web site. I regard these people as sociopaths. They know you don't want this e-mail but they do it anyway. There is not a whole lot of people standing up and saying, 'Oh yes, please send me more information on how to get larger breasts and a bigger penis'."

The Spamhaus Project, based in London, England, is at http://www.spamhaus.org/

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