June 24, 2024

New Survey of Spam Trends

The Pew Internet & American Life Project has released results of a new survey of experiences with email spam.

The report’s headline is “The CAN-SPAM Act Has Not Helped Most Email Users So Far”, and this interpretation is followed by the press articles I have seen so far. But it’s not actually supported by the data. Taken at face value, the data show that the amount of spam has not changed since January 1, when the CAN-SPAM Act took effect.

If true, this is actually good news, since the amount of spam had been increasing previously; for example, according to Brightmail, spam had grown from 7% of all email in April 2001, to 50% in September 2003. If the CAN-SPAM Act put the brakes on that increase, it has been very effective indeed.

Of course, the survey demonstrates only correlation, not causality. The level of spam may be steady, but there is nothing in the survey to suggest that CAN-SPAM is the reason.

An alternative explanation is hiding in the survey results: fewer people may be buying spammers’ products. Five percent of users reported having bought a product or service advertised in spam. That’s down from seven percent in June 2003. Nine percent reported having responded to a spam and later discovered it was phony or fraudulent; that’s down from twelve percent in June 2003.

And note that the survey asked whether the respondent had ever responded to a spam, so the decrease in recent response rates would be much more dramatic. To understand why, imagine a group of 200 people who responded to the latest survey. Suppose that 100 of them are Recent Adopters, having started using the Internet since June 2003, and that the other 100 are Longtime Users who went online before June 2003. According to the previous survey, seven of the Longtime Users (i.e., 7%) bought from a spammer before June 2003; and according to the latest survey, only ten of our overall group of 200 users (i.e., 5%) have ever bought from a spammer. It follows that only three of our other 190 hypothetical users responded to a spam since June 2003, so that spammers are finding many fewer new buyers than before.

A caveat is in order here. The survey’s margin of error is three percent. so we can’t be certain there’s a real trend here. But still, it’s much more likely than not that the number of responders really has decreased.


  1. Just a quick follow up comment.

    According to the most recent Brightmail report for March, the total volume of spam is now up to 63% meaning although the law suits of the Big 4 slowed the growth rate, we are not yet seeing an overall decline.

    Perhaps most disturbing is the statistic that according to Brightmail showing 25% of all spam was “Email attacks offering or advertising general goods and services” – examples being: Devices, Investigation services, Clothing, Makeup.

    John Glube
    Toronto, Canada

  2. Can you imagine being responsible for sending out thoses spam message which annoy people? Since so much of spam is presumably for drug sales its hard to believe so many guys can’t get it up!

    Spam is just another problem created by the USA which the world has to deal with. Just like all the carbon dioxide and other pollutants, or even deadly weapons, that pour out of the that republic, spam is by far predominately sourced from within the USA. Thanks alot people.

    I hope every american looks at themselves to understand, how and why people behave the way they do. It’s a cultural thing and thanks to blogs I can directly express my feedback about issues.

  3. Dr. Felton,

    Although I would love to agree with your analysis of the Pew Report, to be honest, my headline would be Bad Day For Internet On St. Paddy’s Day.

    Though the trend line for buyers of Spam products is either down or static, spamming remains viable. At the same time, the trend line for those abandoning email usage is up, while Consumer trust continues to decline.

    In the summer of 2003, when Pew did the initial study, according to Brightmail, Spam was running at around 50% of all email. By February, 2004 this figure had jumped to 62%.

    The good news? The rate of Spam growth has remained flat or been declining slightly since November, 2003.

    Although the picture is grim, I remain optimistic with genuine efforts being made to tackle the security issues surrounding SMTP, the tide may ultimately be stemmed and reversed.

    Question: – Will this whole discussion become moot with the introduction and rollout of IPv6, recognizing as the Internet is merely an extension of humanity, abusive behavior is part of our existence, so the objective is to control the tide.

    Kind regards,

    John Glube
    Toronto, Canada

  4. I hope that spam response rates continue to decline, and I think that they can.

    Computer users eventually learn about spam and viruses, and they become more careful. However, with internet usage growing exponentially for the past ten years, there were always more than enough inexperienced new users for spammers and scammers to target.

    Now that internet usage in richer nations has reached about 75% of the total population, perhaps the influx of new users will no longer exceed the rate at which existing users become better-educated. Naive first-time users will no longer make up the bulk of the online population.

    Of course, developing nations will remain behind the curve for a few years yet. Any region where net usage starts to take off will become a prime location for spammers to look for gullible newbies.