Volume of spam sent to MyMail increases
Though the signs are barely visible, the amount of junk mail sent to Syracuse University has increased dramatically this year.
For students, the only visible effects of the change are the one or two messages that seep through the university’s filters each day into their MyMail accounts. But in the past month, those filters blocked almost 49 million spam messages, about 82 percent of the total traffic passing through them. Last February, blocked spam made up only 65 percent of the traffic.
‘We started getting more complaints from users at the end of August, around when the semester was beginning,’ said Rich Ameele, an information technology analyst for System Infrastructure Services. ‘Some of that goes along with the increase of activity on the campus.’
In the past, SU has seen spikes in junk mail that last for only a short period of time, he said. However, the recent increase might be more significant.
‘This looks like a change in spammer tactics,’ said Susan Watts, manager of the UNIX System Group at SU.
Indeed, the amount of spam has increased in many sectors, according to a spokesperson for MessageLabs, an Internet security company that publishes the spam trends for more than 180 million e-mails per day. This November, spam made up 74 percent of the messages sent globally, according to the company’s most recent report.
Universities like SU are a prime target for spammers, Ameele said.
‘It’s a big challenge for us to make sure that people don’t get totally swamped with all this junk,’ he said.
Part of the reason for this is because students tend to make their address available on places like social networking sites more often than other sectors, according to the MessageLabs spokesperson. Also, many universities have inefficient anti-spam solutions.
The university currently uses software called Brightmail to filter incoming mail for spam. Watts and Ameele both said this is a very reliable filter. Software company Symantec owns Brightmail, as well as Norton Anti-Virus,.
Brightmail uses a variety of complex methods to screen all e-mails sent to and from MyMail and OrangeMail accounts and then remove the unwanted ones. Spam techniques are often changing, so the software is frequently updated.
At the moment, Brightmail is working properly, but the recent spike in junk mail has pushed the filter to its limits.
‘It’s detecting and removing huge amounts of messages on a daily basis, but the amount of spam message is just increasing dramatically over time,’ Watts said. ‘With that, more messages will come through.’
Ideally, as the filters are updated, they will adjust to the growth of spam. However, now when that will happen is not clear, Watts said.
‘We’re always looking at how we can do better, of course,’ Ameele said.
The license for Brightmail expires June 30, and Watt and Ameele are exploring other options for filtering software.
The university will also look into licensing a new virus filter – all e-mails go through a virus filter, Trendmicro, and then Brightmail – at about the same time, Ameele said.
However, viruses make up only a small portion of the junk mail the university receives. Ameele said the majority of spam is either solicitation or fishing, e-mails designed to dupe the unsuspecting into giving away personal or financial information.
Another problem is the spread of Botnets, computers infected with malicious programs that generate spam without the user’s knowledge or consent. Although the university filters still delete most of this mail, Ameele said, the Botnets waste network resources.
‘We’ve been quite good about stamping them out as quickly as we find them, but it’s become more of a problem in the last few months than it ever has been,’ Ameele said.
The Botnets are but one of the many new techniques that make filtering and outright blocking of junk mail very difficult. For example, spammers frequently use images in place of text to make the junk mail harder to detect.
Watts and Ameele said there is usually down time between when a new spam technique is developed and when a solution is found.
‘We have to see what (spammers are) doing before we can do anything about it,’ Ameele said. ‘It’s frustrating … they are getting more and more creative.’
At the moment, detecting and avoiding spam is the most important thing students can do, Ameele and Watts said, especially because it lowers spammers’ success rate with SU and thus deters them from sending more.
‘People should not give out e-mail to advertisers and such,’ Watts said. ‘They should maintain a separate e-mail account if they want to give it out … at some point and time, spammers will get the information.’
‘(Spam) is something that is just there,’ she said. ‘It’s a fact of life; it’s not going to go away.’
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