Spam email appears to be declining, but still a nuisance

Three-quarters of British Columbians still receive at least one unwanted message a week.

By: Mario Canseco

The most disappointing spam I ever received came from a friend who I had not seen in years. The subject line used the same salutation we relied on when we greeted each other in high school. Unfortunately, when I clicked on the email, there was nothing but a poster offering cheap prescription drugs. My friend was alerted and his email account cancelled.

Even with powerful filters, smarter computers and interventions by IT departments, British Columbians are still receiving unwanted messages at home and at the office. About 90 per cent of those recently polled by Insights West said they receive spam at least once a month, with 74 per cent required to delete unsolicited emails at least once a week.

Spam does not seem to target a specific group. The proportion of annoyed British Columbians does not vary wildly by gender or age, although residents aged 18-34 and 35-54 seem to receive unwanted messages more frequently than those age 55 and over.

People who rely on spam are usually trying to sell something, or take advantage of us. More than anything, British Columbians are receiving unsolicited offers for merchandise or medication (74 per cent of us have received this kind of message). We also encounter emails from lists and newsletters we never subscribed to (66 per cent).

Two other forms of spam are particularly dangerous, with 60 per cent of British Columbians saying they have been told they won a prize or faced the dreaded “419 scam,” in which a sender, often from Nigeria, promises them a significant share of a large sum of money. These frauds are related to more than just money; they may also allow the sender to misappropriate an email address.

The more interesting question is what we do with spam, aside from clicking the delete button. Very few British Columbians (just two per cent) have tried to redeem a prize or contact a sender who promised them money. This may be an act of curiosity more than a genuine belief the offers are real, but it could still leave a person vulnerable. Once contact is made with a sender who knows the recipient is a real person, the proportion of spam only stands to increase.

In an interesting twist, nine per cent of British Columbians say they have reported spam to the police. While many of us simply delete the unwanted emails, there are some who take the time to alert the authorities. British Columbians aged 55 and over are more likely to report spam to the police (13 per cent), perhaps indicative of how this group is targeted by so-called phishing scams.

The ideal government agency to forward these messages to is the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre. It began operations in 1993, as Project PhoneBusters, and tackled primarily telephone scams. Since 2010, the CFAC’s website has warned Canadians about the intricacies of email scams.

Before the new anti-spam legislation kicked in on Canada Day, many of us received a barrage of messages asking us to remain subscribed to newsletters and other email lists, to ensure no rules would be broken. Some people wondered at the time whether receiving so many emails at the same time was counter-productive. In reality, companies were making sure they would not face huge fines as a result of oversight.

The legislation appears to be working, at least domestically. While roughly half of British Columbians (49 per cent) say they have not experienced a decline in the proportion of spam they are receiving after July 1, a third (33 per cent) say they are receiving less spam now, and just seven per cent claim to be receiving more unwanted messages.

There is, however, a problem with the reach of current guidelines. While Canadian companies can be fined for violating existing regulations, there is virtually nothing that can be done to deter unwanted email from overseas. My recent spam was limited to two messages: One touting “high quality bandanas and woven scarfs” and another offering “many kinds of metal components.” Both emails originated in China.

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Photograph: Mike Mozart