Special Assignment: Spam--Part II

Check your email today? You probably had to wade through a lot of junk mail, or spam. It's pretty annoying, but it's also illegal. And experts say the problem's getting worse.

There have been a handful of criminal spamming convictions in the US; a few spammers are actually looking at jail time.

But that's just a drop in the bucket, and our laws can't protect us from foreign spammers.

That can cause real damage. Just ask Jim Lucas, who manages Old Savannah Tours.

"Basically, it almost crashed our system," he said. "Almost put us down for the day."

He was talking about a virus infection that turned his business' computers into spam machines.

"Somebody here opened up the wrong email," explained Allen Edwards, with HiQ Networking. "It turned their machine into what's called a zombie, where it was spamming people. For the spammer, but from your computer."

Lucas hired HiQ to come in, clean up the problem, and install protective software to prevent future infection. But much damage had already been done, in terms of email data lost.

"It's that initial reaction, that initial depression," said Lucas. "You know, there was stuff in there I really wanted to keep. There were emails in there from a potential customer, there were details in there about a service."

Using email to spread computer viruses that turn computers into zombies, criminal spammers can conduct their business from around the world and remain very hard to trace.

Edwards explained. "Who gave you this infection? Well, it was emailed from So-and-So, who opened their email, and you have to make a large chain back to where it came from. And of course where it came from was probably overseas. It's a very difficult process to go back to the original source."

Even if you find the original source, Savannah attorney Marc Marling says you can't hold them accountable under American law.

"There's no extraterritorial jurisdiction over those countries for US laws to apply. And we would be offended if people try to enforce their laws against us in the United States from some other country. So, if you take it in that context there's really nothing out there to stop this from happening."

"Computers and the internet and servers and networks can be your best friend or they can be your worst nightmare," said Lucas, who can laugh about now that his network's restored. "We've been able to unfortunately experience both."

But in 2005, he says, you can't afford to be in business without them.

So the bottom line: you need to take steps yourself to protect your home and business computers. We've put together a tip sheet with some recommendations.

While experts continue to look at the possibility of some kind of international agreements to battle the global problem of spam, critics are quick to point out legal solutions, especially international ones, can be expensive and cumbersome.

Only time will tell, but if last year's record amount of spam is any indication, the problem will be with us for long time.

Reported by: Charles Gray, cgray@wtoc.com