Date Published: September 18, 2007
Publisher: Public Library of Science
Author(s): Peter Gernburd, Alejandro R Jadad
Abstract: At least one-third of spam e-mails include offers of health products, according to this new study.
Partial Text: Spam, the term used to describe unsolicited e-mail received from an unknown sender without expressed consent of the recipient , has become a major problem for communications through the Internet. Since the delivery of the first spam message in 1978 , the volume of spam has grown tremendously. In January 2005, the percentage of all e-mails, worldwide, identified as spam was estimated at 73% .
Sampling frame. Three accounts, unfiltered for spam, were used to collect the data from November 1 to November 30, 2006. All accounts were based in Ontario, Canada, and were active for at least six months before data collection started. One of the accounts, which we labeled research, belonged to a member of the Centre for Global eHealth Innovation (http://www.ehealthinnovation.org/); another, labeled commercial, belonged to a commercial provider of communication services (Mountain Cablevision; http://www.mountaincable.net/); and one acted as a control and was set up to collect unsolicited messages.
The study accounts received 4,153 unsolicited messages (82% of the total messages received) during the month of November 2006. Health-related spam accounted for 32% (n = 1,334). Nineteen messages had active Web links during the last week of the month. These messages had been received a total of 143 times by the accounts. Of these, 73% (n = 104) had been sent from the United States, 16% (n = 23) from China, and 5% (n = 8) from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (Table 1). Only 58% of the active links in health-related messages received during the first week remained active by end of the second week; while 26% were active by the end of the month. Thirteen of the 19 messages included offers of prescription drugs and six included offers of natural health products. None included services or devices. Three of the messages offered free shipping of products, while the rest charged between US$9.00 and US$19.95. Only half of the messages included statements on refund of products.
We approached and completed this project with trepidation. We knew that we would be interacting with organizations operating at the margins of the law or clearly outside it. It was not easy to get approval from university administrators for a project that could include ordering products from unknown and unverified sources, and which could lead to illegal trade of substances, or costs associated with items for the enhancement of sexual function. It was unsettling to order the products, not knowing whether we were contacting undercover law enforcement agents (to whom it would be difficult to explain the research nature of the project) or fronts for unscrupulous criminals who could abuse the financial information or even steal our identities. We believe that the effort and stress were worthwhile.