Spam: The Next Generation coming to your Phone

by Dave Michels

Recently our company SPAM filter expired.

Unlike an expired antivirus program that simply stops updating its signature file, but continues to work. Our Antispam filter just completely stops upon expiration.

I was surprised to learn that I started receiving nearly 800 spam emails a day. I am also pleased to report that the Microsoft Outlook Junk Mail filter was doing a reasonable job identifying the messages. Client based spam protection makes no sense though. Thank goodness for always-on broadband – I can’t imagine dialing in after a day or two to sync my mail and having to wait for all those messages to be sorted.

No fear, our SPAM filter on the server is back.

Even with the SPAM filter, several messages do get through to me. Today I got a handful of unwanted messages. The fact is SPAM continues to grow quickly and even if SPAM filters “keep up” – SPAM goes up. It is simple math, if a SPAM filter blocks 98% of the SPAM – then I will get 16 unwanted/SPAM emails (out of 800), but if SPAM doubles to 1600 messages a day (it will) then I will get 32 messages. Considering how much junk mail I get in my real mailbox (junk mail is expensive to print and mail) then one can easily conclude the free SPAM junk will grow even quicker. Normally this type of math would cripple the system from being useful (both in technical terms and human usability). But in the case of email – people love it and aren’t about to give it up.

No doubt huge changes will come with email as the filter model won’t scale. Probably the type of thing where the sender will have to type the cryptic non readable code (increasing in popularity) or a totally new generation of tools and controls yet to come.

But while Email SPAM is the current topic of controversy, I believe the next generation will be voice mail spam. Here are the factors:

  • Long distance pricing is approaching zero.
  • Outbound voice response systems are getting very sophisticated.
  • Email spam messages are getting too sophisticated to assume the recipient will view the message.
  • The chance of catching someone at their desk is pretty low, we almost expect voice mail.
  • People do (reluctantly) listen to their voice mail, there are no filters other than occasional execs that their admins write them down.
  • SPAM filters for voice mail are essentially non-existent and far from commercially viable. Nor do they learn…. can you mark a voice mail as spam? Doing it in email will likely only result in filtering messages from the PBX to the email server.
  • The only simple means of filtering are based on caller-ID – and most enterprises have poor ability (at the machine or human levels) to filter based on caller-ID. Particularly since the vast majority of systems only provide a number.
  • Most enterprises have ranges of DID numbers that will make targeting pretty easy – or you can easily target by city or area code.
  • Voice mails are boring – adding a little humor or “dirty talk” could actually result with an increased chance of listening – not particularly true for email.

We are already beginning to see it. McCain got negative press over his robocalls, but automated phone systems for political campaigns are not new. I get a robo call once a month, but only rarely does one actually leave a voice mail. They typically instead want me to press 1 so an agent can come on. That misses the boat.

The smarter systems are designed for voice mail. They leave teasers offering free trips or potential business if I call back. A crafty message could be up to a minute long, cost pennies to deliver and just like SPAM – expect an x% response rate. But my theory is a much higher delivery rate.

So what do we do? No idea. I am a great fortune teller on non profitable things. Perhaps build excellent voice mail spam delivery systems to sell to the spammers? Maybe work on voice mail spam filtering technologies or patents? Not sure, but I wanted to reserve the right to say I predicted this.