Spam — that daily deluge of unwanted solicitations for mortgage rates, increased physical prowess and pleas for asylum — is a four-letter word if ever there was one. Everyone hates it, everyone complains about it and — as it turns out — too many of us ignore it.

According to the 2004 Spam Monitor online survey commissioned by Clearswift (makers of the MIMEsweeper software titles), in association with TRUSTe, a non-profit privacy certification and seal program, more than one third of the companies that installed anti-spam software have never updated the filters, leaving them exposed to viral attacks, legal liability and diminished productivity. Spam, like its more infamous cousins — computer viruses — evolve and mutate quickly. If you don't regularly update your anti-spam software, you render it useless.

Although 72 percent of businesses have installed some type of anti-spam e-mail protection, 63 percent of them don't supplement with Web filtering software, a necessity in order to block HTML spam — spammers use it to avoid filtering at the SMTP (Simple Mail Transfer Protocol) gateway.

Lest you think it's just the big companies that answered the survey, Clearswift reports that 46.6 of the respondents have fewer than 100 employees. According to Greg Hampton, Clearswift's vice president of marketing, Americas, maintaining updated spam filters is even harder for small businesses. "Over the past few years, IT departments have been cut back as far as possible and then some," says Hampton. "It's worse for small businesses. If they even have an IT department, they lack the people and the expertise to handle everything, especially security. They're much more likely to update virus protection over anti-spam."

Hampton calls spam a "multi-headed monster." It's a security risk: spam can carry destructive viruses into your computer and network. It's a legal liability: Spam often contains offensive material. It's a productivity issue: Employees waste time either deleting it or reading it.

Even more unnerving is the fact that 24 percent of businesses said that third parties had, without company knowledge, used their servers in order to send spam. Another 34 percent didn't know if that had happened to them, and 30 percent couldn't tell whether spammers had used company Wi-Fi networks to send spam.

The moral of the story is this: Uncontrolled spam isn't just an annoyance. It's a security risk — on par with computer viruses — that saps your company's time, resources and bottom line. If you have anti-spam software installed on your company PCs and networks, make sure you update it regularly.

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