The London Olympic Games are almost upon us, and it’s no great surprise that there’s been an uptick in spam activity related to the games. Spammers love to latch onto any topic that will lower a person’s guard long enough to click on a malicious link or open an attachment. The psychology is simple: pick a subject that’s in everyone’s mind and the battle is half-won. And in a year that’s seen conflicting reports and dramatic changes in the nature of e-mail spam, it seems that the battlefield has changed, or perhaps more appropriately, grown, to include multiple scam methods.
It’s the simple premise of economies of scale. Why just implement a spam e-mail and SMS campaign – a ‘push’ mechanism that requires the scammer to broadcast a message in the hopes that a user will read the e-mail and choose to click the link? It makes a lot of sense to target e-mail, SMS, as well as other methods like Twitter and Facebook – methods in which the user ‘pulls’ the message, in a sense, by actively participating when they log into the site and click links that appear to be valid messages from compromised friends, or scammers masquerading as site staff.
It’s long been a malady – a growing pain, really – of the Internet that users have had little control over what got delivered to their inboxes. Most users feel hopeless to do anything about it, and God forbid that they get scammed….what then? We don’t really know how successful the scammers have been over the past twenty or so years that e-mail scams have been around. In the early days of the Internet, people who succumbed to a scam probably reacted in much the same way you would today – call the police. But without laws, or even a general understanding of what the technology was all about, most people probably heard what you’d expect the police to say at a time when Windows 95 wasn’t yet available and Steve Jobs was still in exile from Apple: “there’s nothing we can do.”
Jump to 2012 and the story hasn’t changed much. Your local po-po ain’t going to be able to do much about a Nigerian ‘prince’ who just scammed your nana out of her life savings, unless that prince happens to show up in your neighborhood and gets nabbed for driving his Ferrari too fast. Fortunately, Microsoft and several international law enforcement organizations have been working hard for you, shuttering botnets, redirecting your DNS so you can continue to friend people and fling angry birds at things, and putting bad little spammers behind bars. Laws have been put in place, but remain fairly toothless. So what’s an honest, taxpaying citizen to do? Well, in the UK, you can give the Information Commissioner’s Office the ability to fine those individuals and organizations who have a love affair with bugging people.
Earlier this year, the ICO was given the ability to levy fines up to £500,000, although they haven’t had much success in finding someone to fine. They are, however, getting people riled up enough to do something about the glut of spam oozing out of inboxes. According to the BBC, the ICO reports that consumer complaints over spam and e-mail have risen this year by a whopping 43%. The greatest complaints are over automated phone calls (35%), unwanted text messages (29%), live phone calls (19%) and email (14%).
Unfortunately, like any public complaint forum, not every complaint is valid. According to the BBC, the ICO’s annual report revealed that “of the complaints made only 11% were considered for investigation. The majority – 60% – were classed as “ineligible” or “made too early”.”
Now, the 43% isn’t quite so impressive when you consider that the total number of complaints only amounted to 7,095 in the last year. But it’s still significant if you consider that people are taking matters into their own hands. Twenty years ago, people had little or no recourse when being electronically harassed, and twenty years later, at least we can vent a bit. And the ICO recognizes that it’s faced with a mighty task. “It has proved difficult in the past,” an ICO spokesman stated to the BBC, “for the ICO to get the information needed from telecommunications providers to allow us to sufficiently investigate spam.” The ICO chooses to remain optimistic, and maybe some of those consumer complaints will result in a few hurtful fines. If nothing else, we are not nearly as helpless as we were twenty years ago.