Spam floods inboxes, peaks during Fall term

by Will Roth | 11/21/06 6:00am

Do you need a mortgage? Perhaps you are feeling a little bit depressed, or are you having trouble sleeping? Need "generik" Viagra for only $1.59 per dose? You haven't won the lottery -- You've been spammed.

Dartmouth students have seen a spike in the number of BlitzMail messages with subject lines like those above -- and anything else imaginable -- during Fall term. According to David Gelhar, software engineer for computing services, 70 to 80 percent of e-mails sent to Dartmouth students are identified as spam by Spam Assassin, the software that filters mail sent to BlitzMail accounts at Dartmouth.

The surge in spam is affecting many institutions including universities across the country as the beginning of a new academic year sees a spike in spam messages. Spam is often addressed to only one student, leading students to believe that they have been targeted for spam, or that they somehow provoked the spam messages. According to Computer Services, it is common for spam software to go through long lists of names and e-mail addresses indiscriminately, sending messages out one by one.

"It may not be visible that it is going to a list; spam these days is clever in that it seems personalized, and there are so many ways that your name can get on a list," Gelhar said. "The people who are sending spam know about spam protection software; the purpose is to confuse anti-spam software."

According to administrators at Computer Services, spam is constantly increasing, and originally caused the school to implement Spam Assassin in 2003. Students would be overwhelmed with spam messages without Spam Assassin in place. However, if a student puts the spam filter on the highest setting, there is a risk that desired BlitzMail messages might be placed into the spam folder as opposed to the inbox folder.

Some students, however, are not aware that they can set their BlitzMail account to block incoming spam messages by creating a spam folder and turning on the spam filter.

"I didn't even know there was a spam filter," Nick Smith '09 said. "Some [messages] are clearly spam, but are not automatically deleted."

Some students report getting so much spam that it interferes with their ability to efficiently use BlitzMail.

"I get easily 50 spam blitzes every day. It is incredibly annoying, especially with job recruiting going on, and I'm worried that I'm going to accidentally erase a real e-mail with all the spam if it comes from a name I don't recognize," Allie Owens '06 said. While Owens has not used her spam filter in the past, she plans on using it now that recruitment is coming to a close and that her spam has been increasing dramatically over the past three terms.

Students who have taken measures to filter their BlitzMail account with Spam Assassin have seen good results.

"I put on my spam filter and check my spam folder. I get about two spam [messages] a week in my inbox," Anne Liu '08 said. "There is always so much in the spam folder."

Spam Assassin can make managing BlitzMail messages a lot easier, but students are still confused by some of the blitzes they receive.

"Sometimes I will get something addressed to someone else," Liu said, in reference to the fact that the subject line or text of spam will seem to be intended for a specific person.

Although spam is obviously not a problem unique to Dartmouth, the Dartmouth Plan's quarter system can complicate the process of updating spam software.

"At Dartmouth, it is kind of tough because the way the terms run, we can't do much in [vacation] breaks," David Bucciero, director of Technical Services, said. Computer Services plans to update Spam Assassin software over the upcoming winter break, but any estimate of how much spam will be blocked would be speculation. In the meantime, the official recommendation is to set your filter to three and kick back.