Controlling Spam: Heres What One Agency Did

At one time, talk about spam referred to condensed meat in a can. Today, that term takes on a whole different meaning for e-mail users who are bombarded each day with volumes of unsolicited advertisements we know as spam.

The issue simply is not limited to the annoyance of having to delete unwanted e-mails, but it also has an effect on employee productivity and software equipment, say information technology executives.

One insurance brokerage firm, based in West Point, Ga., watched the effect of unwanted spam on its own system and decided it was time to do something about it. The firm chose a product from a software vendor that had proven itself to the firm already.

D. Gaines Lanier, CEO and president of J. Smith Lanier & Co., an independent insurance brokerage firm of more than 400 employees, says that about a year and a-half ago the firm saw a problem that needed resolution.

“I receive and delete e-mails every day and I realized how much junk e-mail was coming across my personal computer,” Lanier remembers. “I realized how much was getting to me and feared how much was getting to others in the company that we had no idea about. We realized we had to get some type of control around just where all this junk e-mail was coming from.”

The firms written policy on e-mail was not sufficient to control the inflow, he says, and it decided that another solution needed to be found to control the situation.

Michael Millan, the firms director of information technology at the time, and now an independent consultant headquartered in Auburn, Ala., says the firm reviewed three software products meant to filter out unwanted e-mail. The firm chose Scotts Valley, Calif.-based software developer SurfControl.

Millan explains that Lanier chose the software for several reasons. The firm already had an idea of what the software vendor was capable of doing. Three years before, because of Internet bandwidth problems, the firm decided to get a Web-filtering system to bar entry to some Internet sites and improve access to the Web.

He says the software “did more than we thought it would.” The Web filter increased bandwidth by 15% and was “very easy to set up and configure.”

Later, when senior management finally “became very irritated” with the spam, the firm looked at three different products, Millan says, including SurfControls.

“We were amazed,” Millan says of the companys reaction when the software was installed.

In the first couple of days of use, the filter caught more than 2,000 pieces of e-mail coming through the central mail server, 90% of which was spam. The new software required a little tweaking, largely on the financial services side because of the information those e-mails asked for, but it proved largely successful.

He says one of the larger problems was the adult content messages that were coming through, and the filter completely eliminated them on the first day of use.

“We went from a couple hundred messages a day that were going through and upsetting some people, to zero,” says Millan.

The filter lets the agency allow e-mail from specific people or vendors to get through. On the flip side, it can be set up to bar specific people from e-mailing messages to the firm.

“If you have someone sending abusive or harassing e-mail to someone in your company, you can block that person out relatively easily,” he notes.

There was a little training involved in getting the information technology department to check routinely for messages that should have gone through. The firms employees also had to be taught that if they were waiting for an important e-mail that had not come through to “give a shout” to the IT department and check if it was sitting in the filter.

“People thought it was worth the burden because of all the junk they were no longer getting on their machines,” says Millan.

Before installing the filter, when he would come in on a Monday, Millan says he could find about 300 e-mails in his inbox from over the weekend. After the filter was installed the number dropped to 50, he notes.

Today, says Eddie Ferrel, the current director of information technology for Lanier, more than 48,000 e-mails went through the filtering system over a seven-day period, and on one weekend alone 11,000 messages were stopped by the filter. Of the 48,000 that went into the filter, 25% went through to their destination, leaving the remaining 75% to be reviewed by the IT department as spam.

“That takes some time, but it gives you an opportunity to look at it and stop it,” says Ferrel. “In terms of productivity of your employees, it saves them time from having to read through and delete it.”

To get a measure of how much spam costs a company, SurfControl did a survey of 700 IT professionals in 2002. It found that each spam message costs $1 in worker productivity to a company.

Susan Getgood, senior vice president of marketing for SurfControl, says there is more to spam than just the annoyance of unwanted e-mails. There is loss of productivity and bandwidth, due to the constant flow of unwanted e-mails clogging up the system and needing to be deleted.

For insurance companies, she notes, there is the additional burden from federal regulations to keep clients files safe, secure and confidential. She says there is the concern that some spam could create unwanted contacts or it could be designed to pull client information out of the agencys files.

SurfControl uses what she says is a rules-based system that allows an agencys rules for Internet use to be translated to the desktop. Clients have 30 days to evaluate the software, which they can download themselves, and in that time can craft how and what e-mail they want to capture or let through.

A typical investment in this providers product will run about $18 per user in a firm of 500 and slightly more for smaller firms and agencies, she says. It also requires either adequate server space or its own personal computer to operate.

“What e-mail filtering really does is it certainly stops the spam, but it also helps companies get a handle on all of these other threats and really manage the use of these services for business use,” says Getgood. “That is the long-term view [agents] should take when thinking about these technologies. Yes, I want to stop spam, because thats my problem today, but I also want to invest in something that will help my company be more profitable in the long run.”

SurfControls Web site is located at www.surfcontrol.com.

Mark E. Ruquet is an assistant editor for NUs Property & Casualty/Risk & Benefits Management Edition.


Reproduced from National Underwriter Life & Health/Financial Services Edition, August 25, 2003. Copyright 2003 by The National Underwriter Company in the serial publication. All rights reserved.Copyright in this article as an independent work may be held by the author.