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Why I Feel Sorry For Spammers

I feel sorry for spammers. Not because they're worthless pukebags who would sell their 5-year old sister for a dollar to a gang of pedophiles, or because they're greedy liars who would knife their own grandmother for a couple of fresh email addresses. (I'm specifically referring to spammers, not hackers, or phishers, or malware distributors- I'll cover them in another post, although what I'd really like to cover them in is a thick layer of asphalt.) No, I feel sorry for spammers for another reason.

The reason I feel sorry for spammers is because their job just gets harder and harder, every single day. It used to be easy pickings for them, but it's tougher now. Spammers used to be able to send out a few thousand emails, rake in the cash, and call it a day. Now they literally have to send out millions of emails to get any response at all.

You see, a lot of people are now wise to the fact that if you buy Viagra online, what you'll probably end up with are chalk tablets that have been spray-painted blue. (And that's if you're lucky- at least chalk isn't toxic, like some of the stuff they make fake pills out of. )

A lot of people are also finally realizing that places like Nigeria aren't really  bursting at the seams with princes who need your help to smuggle forty bazillion dollars out the country.  (Seriously, if I had a buck for every Nigerian prince who emailed me, I'd already have forty bazillion dollars.)

And most people no longer fall for emails telling them that they've won the "El Gordo Spanish Lottery", or the "MICROSOFT MILLIONAIRE SWEEPSTAKES", or the "EuroLotto Grand Prize" (although some still do).

This is true of most spam- fewer and fewer people are likely to believe it, regardless of what it is. Mortgage refinancing, time-shares, too-good-to-be-true job offers, fake ATM cards, pills, SEO pitches, DHL/UPS package scams, counterfeit watches, etc etc etc…people just aren't going for it like they used to.

So right off the bat, the spammer's target audience has shrunk quite a bit. Yes, there will always be suckers and foolish people out there, but the sheer number of them is shrinking. Due to news stories, security training, and friends who take the time to enlighten them, it's actually getting harder to find a truly gullible mark on the internet these days.

The other big factor is that spam detection and filtering technology are getting pretty good now. With virtually all of the major email providers  (Gmail, Hotmail, Yahoo, etc) and most ISPs doing serious front-end filtering, a lot less spam reaches the intended recipients. Products like DSPAM, SpamAssassin, Mailwasher (among others) also do an admirable job of screening out the spam from the ham.

To combat their lowered effectiveness, spammers do two things: they ramp up the number of messages they send and they go to ever-increasing lengths to obfuscate or hide the content of their messages.

In fact, most of the spam I get now has been garbled so badly in order to get through the spam filters that I can hardly tell what it is they're selling. I couldn't buy their product even if I wanted to because the email is a just a big blob of "word-salad" text, or it's so badly formatted that it's impossible to read. Some emails arrive with just a link, nothing else.  Some are so lame that they make me laugh:

"my name is George barunda I have $32,000,000 DOLLARS i want to transfer to your bank account Will you help me?"

(That's an actual email I got, by the way. Is that pathetic or what?)

When spammers ramp up their out and send more messages, the long-term effect is that it just trains the spam filters to be more effective. Products like DSPAM use Bayesian probability techniques to "learn" from each filtered message, so they get better and better over time. I doubt there are 50 people in the world who really understand Bayesian probability, but just like teh intarweb itself, you don't have to understand it to use it.

In essence Bayesian filtering works by comparing messages that are marked or "trained" by you as "spam" to other messages. If that one is spam, and its content statistically looks like this one, chances are that this one is also spam. As the filter collects a larger and larger base of comparison data, it generally makes better and better decisions about what's legitimate email and what's spam.

So…users are getting smarter (a little bit, at least) and filter technology is definitely getting better. The end result is that spamming gets less and less profitable as time goes by. I'm quite certain  that spam will never go away completely (that just ain't gonna happen), but it may get to the point where it won't pay the bills for most of the spammers anymore. They'll have to go out, get real jobs, and work for a living. Boy, wouldn't that be tragic?

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