E-mail viruses and worms are turning millions of home computers into spam distributors. An estimated 1 million people had personal information stolen through "phishing" schemes. About 80 percent of all e-mail traffic is unsolicited junk.
Some wonder if the promise of e-mail as an indispensable business tool is turning into a nightmare.
"It increasingly is broken," Silicon Valley venture capitalist Steve Jurvetson told USA Today. "Spam, fraud, phishing schemes, all this other stuff is more than an annoyance. The future of the medium is at stake."
Market researchers say scams, viruses and junk e-mail cost more than $15 billion in personal losses and lost workplace productivity last year.
Last week, America Online, Yahoo, EarthLink and Microsoft, the nation's largest carriers of e-mail, urged smaller Internet providers to freeze infected e-mail accounts or limit their use. The effort is intended to slow the number of "zombie PCs" that are hijacked to send spam without the user's knowledge. AOL found that 89 percent of attempted spam on its network last month came from zombie PCs.
"We want to make sure other online neighborhoods are clean," says Nicholas Graham, a spokesman for AOL, which shuts down infected accounts. The large ISPs want the smaller providers to patch security holes, verify identities of e-mail senders and monitor unusually high volumes of mail.
The battle is clearly uphill as schemes get more sophisticated. Phishing, for example, tricks consumers into revealing personal data by responding to spam that appears legitimate. The Anti-Phishing Working Group said phishing attacks soared to a record 1,125 unique schemes in April, compared with 402 in March. As for viruses, nearly 1,000 viruses surfaced in May, the most since December 2001, after Nimda and Code Red hit, according computer-security company Sophos.
Users are starting to distrust e-mail, using it more carefully or even opting against buying goods online or paying bills over the Internet. Some companies are even considering returning to postal mail, USA Today reported.
"I'm less likely to attach a document knowing the recipient may delete it out of (fear) of receiving a virus," says Aaron Itzkowitz, an account manager for a software company in Florida. "And I will delete an unfamiliar e-mail rather than open possibly infected e-mail."
"E-mail gives criminals what they want: a degree of anonymity," says Bruce Townsend, who coordinates cybercrime investigations for the U.S. Secret Service. "Law enforcement does not have the financial or technological resources to cope with all these cases. But we have a lot of techniques" to find many, he said.