Small and mid-size companies across the country are inundated with unsolicited e-mail, otherwise known as spam. The cost, in terms of lost employee productivity, is staggering. Members of the Information Technology Solution Providers Alliance (ITSPA) offer their thoughts on inexpensive ways to quickly reduce spam.

Fighting spam is an aggravating priority for America's eight million small- to medium-sized businesses, according to the ITSPA, a national non-profit group established to help smaller businesses understand how local technology providers can help them grow.

Citing a recent study conducted by Nucleus Research, ITSPA Chairman Andrew Levi said the average employee of a small company receives more than 13 unwanted e-mail messages every day.

"This costs SMBs almost $1,000 per employee each year because the average worker spends 6.5 minutes daily managing spam," Levi said. "That's about a 1.5 percent yearly loss in employee productivity."

Levi said the Alliance recommends small business operators adopt a spam survival strategy immediately, because the problem will only get much worse if ignored.

"The best way to fight spam is to keep your e-mail address away from spammers and prevent their e-mails from entering your employees' mailboxes," Levi said. "Protecting your e-mail address can be handled through basic workplace policies. Keeping spammers out of your mailbox involves technology solutions such as spam filters."

The ITSPA's advisory board members, who include executives from the nations most successful IT solution providers, offered useful — and, in most cases, free — measures to help small businesses reduce spam. These included:

  • Avoid responding to spam. By responding to spam or sending a "remove request," the recipient confirms receipt and validates his or her e-mail address.

  • Avoid posting e-mail addresses on the company website. E-mail addresses on websites should be rendered unreadable by posting them as graphic elements, which spammers' automatic search engines can't read. Companies that provide a "feedback option" on their websites should use a server side script and button rather than a link to an e-mail address.

  • Use different e-mail addresses for postings on newsgroups. Employees who post on newsgroups will receive spam in return. By using another e-mail address, they avoid receiving spam at their business e-mail addresses.

  • Avoid giving out your e-mail without knowing how it will be used or disclosed. When asked for an e-mail address, always read the fine print in privacy statements to determine if you're protected.

  • Don't buy anything advertised by spammers. The information you're asked to provide always includes your e-mail address, which negates your right to privacy. By not buying from spammers, companies that use their services to advertise on the Internet will stop if their products dont sell.

  • Use built-in filtering features of your mail server to eliminate most spam. Subscribe to a "black hole" list such as the Mail Abuse Prevention System (MAPS) and filter known mail servers used by spammers. A feature called "reverse DNS" can be used to filter host name records to check for valid e-mail addresses.

  • Disable the "mail relay" function on e-mail servers. Spammers typically "bounce" their e-mail spam off e-mail servers that have the mail relay function enabled. Disabling mail relay not only makes it more difficult for spammers to be successful, but also prevents your company's IP address or domain name from being registered with the public blacklists as a suspected source of spam.

  • Implement e-mail virus scanning. Use a virus protection solution to prevent opening an e-mail that contains a script that gathers e-mail addresses from your address book. Macro viruses can scavenge your e-mail as well as anyone you've sent mail to.

  • If all else fails, use a spam filter. These are tools that detect unsolicited e-mail by analyzing message content and words. Several solutions are available ranging from an appliance called a gateway scanner to server-based software that resides in the e-mail host computer.

"These spam-fighting measures will eliminate some, but not all, unwanted messages," Levi said. "Spammers are continually using new technologies and methods and, to avoid being stopped, even send messages using image or HTML attachments to circumvent content filters. Every time we discover these methods, we look for new ways to close that loophole."

Keeping current with the latest spam-fighting techniques is a full time job, but one worth performing given the impact on employee productivity. The ITSPA recommends that small businesses contact their local IT solution provider for help with controlling spam, as well as other important business and technology issues.