Spam volumes drop, millions of cheap Valium fans disappointed

The number of spam messages plummeted during December, and nobody's quite sure why. Have the spammers just made a pig's ear of things?

by Emma Haslett
Last Updated: 07 Jan 2011
Inbox been tidier lately? Unless you’ve lost friends, it could be down to spam – well, the absence thereof. According to anti-virus firm Symantec, the number of spam emails has plummeted over the last few weeks, with the number of messages dropping from an average of 200bn a day in August, to a 'mere' 50bn a day in December. No one seems to be entirely sure what’s caused the lull. But don't get used to a life free of offers of cheap Percocet. The general consensus seems to be that this is probably just a temporary respite...

Whether it’s cheap pharmaceuticals, loans or, er, other services, most of the world’s spam is apparently sent by three ‘botnets’ - networks of computers infected with the software that sends out spam. And one of them, ‘Rustock’, which was once behind 48% of the world’s spam, dropped to just 0.5% over the course of December. The two other largest botnets, Lethic and Xarvester, were also far quieter than usual.

So what’s going on? Were the spammers just taking an extended Christmas break? Unlikely. One possibility is that anti-spam software, which has got more advanced lately, is now outwitting the pirates to the point where they're finding it harder to operate. Back in September, spam affiliate programme Spamit, which was responsible for ‘some of the world’s most disruptive, infections and sophisitcated’ botnets, was even forced to shut down, saying that ‘numerous negative events’ meant continuing with the programme was impossible.

Another possible explanation is that the spammers simply aren’t making the profit they were expecting from their campaigns. Like most businesses, if a campaign isn’t working, spammers will stop using it and move onto something else (although in this case, the choice of products seems to be fairly limited). Perhaps the world’s demand for discount Rolexes has finally been satiated?

Sadly, though, past evidence suggests that they’ll be back. ‘For years there have been predictions that email spam is set to decline,’ Websense researcher Carl Leonard told the BBC today. ‘But for as long as the spammers can generate profit from their activities, it’s not going away’. Darn.

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