The AOL Postmaster team sat down at the end of last year to calculate the Top 10 most widely sent spam headers, or subject lines, for the entire year. Spam hammered AOL, the world's largest ISP, last year, just as it did every other ISP and corporate email server.
MessageLabs, Inc., a New York-based email security company, says spam now makes up 50 percent of all corporate email. Analysts there noted that in the past month of July alone, they stopped 79.7 million spam emails -- 10 million more than the total number stopped in all of 2002.
AOL, which serves 25 million U.S. customers and 33 million worldwide, reports that it blocked 500 billion, or half a trillion, spam emails in 2003. That breaks down into 15,000 spams averted from every single user's inbox.
''Spam was noticeably worse,'' says Nicholas Graham, a vice president at AOL. ''I think most ISPs would share the same opinion that the spam fight was ratcheted up several notches.''
In descending order from first to tenth, AOL lists the top spam as: Viagra and other pharmaceutical sales; Get out of Debt; Get Bigger or Satisfy Your Partner; Get an Online Degree; Lower Your Mortgage Rates; Lower Insurance Rates; Work from Home or Be Your Own Boss; Hot XXX Action, and As Seen on Oprah.
Graham points to three main causes behind the increasing flood of spam.
First, he says it's simply a mathematical issue. More people are using email every year. That increased dependence just fuels the fire of, and adds new targets for, spammers. The second cause lies in the struggling economy. When people need to pay the rent, they'll turn to more dubious ventures -- like sending spam -- to make it happen.
But Graham also says that part of the reason that spam was ratcheted up a notch was the devious and fraudulent turn that it took. And it took that turn because ISPs have been hammering back at spammers, making it harder for them to send spam.
''We're painting them into a smaller and smaller corner,'' says Graham. ''When that happens, they try to find any possible technique to get their junk email in front of our members' eyes. I think the bottom line is that we're starting to take out the people who do it on the side. We're down to the kingpin spammers.''
Graham says he's expecting more of the same for 2004.
More fraudulent subject lines. More fraudulent sender identifications. More sneaky ways to get past spam filters and, ultimately, to get users to open up the email. This list, which is the first Spam Top 10 that AOL has put together, is aimed at helping users recognize and avoid spam.
Spam not only wastes users' time and causes a distraction from actual work, but the pornographic types of spam can create an uncomfortable workplace, and cause trouble from an HR standpoint. And 2003 found that spam was smuttier than ever.
Graham notes that 10 percent to 20 percent of spam is now directly related to offensive subjects, such as selling pornography or even child pornography. But on AOL's list of Top 10 Spam, Viagra, and other pharmaceutical sales topped the charts. 'Improve your Sex Life' and enhanced body parts came in forth on the list. 'Triple X Action' came in ninth.