Most troubling was the finding that 27 percent of the 2,000 e-mail users who participated in a Consumer Reports' surveys reported that spam had changed the way they use the Internet. Of that group, 38 percent said they cut down on e-mail usage, and 30 percent said they shopped online less.
Attempts from the Federal Trade Commission to curtail the spam volume have apparently not been successful. Nearly half (47 percent) of the survey respondents were in agreement with findings from an early 2004 report that they've received more unwanted messages since CAN-SPAM went into effect.
In fact, 69 percent of respondents said they got more spam than legitimate e-mail and roughly 55 percent said they were subjected to pornographic or other objectionable material.
To combat spam, Consumer Reports recommends MailFrontier Desktop (Matador) ($30) for maximum spam-blocking capabilities. Unfortunately, the stringent settings are accompanied by a 4 percent false positive rate.
Alladin/Mailshell SpamCatcher Universal ($30) also earned high ratings, but it blocked only 67 percent of test spam. Apple's Mac OS X Mail 1.3.8 won the distinction of being the best e-mail program in the magazine's ratings.
Spam was just one of the many online hazards the respondents routinely encountered. Nearly two-thirds (64 percent) detected a virus on their computers in the past two years; roughly 12 percent found 10 or more viruses in the past two years; and 36 percent reported that their Web browser's home page was changed by spyware.
Less frequent but more troublesome were findings that nearly 7 percent said they permanently lost important data due to a virus; roughly 4 percent spent $100 or more to repair virus-inflicted damage; and just under 1 percent lost between $100 and $1,000 from their bank accounts due to phishing scams.
Trend Micro PC-cillin 2004 ($50) and Norton AntiVirus 2004 9.0 ($50) were the top-rated full-featured, easy-to-use antivirus programs. Trend Micro PC-cillin is a suite of applications that include an anti-spam component, firewall, and privacy features, while Norton was tested as a standalone product.
If price is more important than real-time spyware protection, Consumer Reports' most highly rated detection program is Lavasoft Ad-aware 6 Standard, which is available as a free download at lavasoftusa.com. PestPatrol ($40), which earned the second highest rating, offers real-time protection.
The best-in class results appear in the September issue of Consumer Reports along with helpful recommendations about how users can protect themselves against the online hazards of spam, viruses, spyware, phishing and identity theft.