Spam ROI: Profit on 1 in 12.5m Response Rate

Josh Catone

Why do spammers keep on spamming in spite of miserable response rates? The answer is that because even though the vast majority of people ignore spam, or filter it out completely, there are those few suckers who actually order products via unsolicited emails and end up making spam profitable for the slime who do it. As a result of the naivety of the few, the rest of us are forced to suffer — because, let’s face it, even the best spam filters aren’t 100% effective, especially for high volume email users that get hundreds of legit messages daily.

According to a 2008 study by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley and UC, San Diego, spammers get a response just once for every 12.5 million emails they send — a response rate of 0.000008%. Despite that, though, spammers are still able to turn a profit.

Earlier this year, the research team took control of a botnet of 75,869 hijacked machines that actually send out spam for real spammers, and used that network to send out their own fake spam messages advertising a fictitious pharmacy site that sold an herbal remedy to increase the taker’s sex drive. “After 26 days, and almost 350 million e-mail messages, only 28 sales resulted,” wrote the researchers in a paper explaining their project.

That’s a miserable response rate — and well below the 2.15% rate that legit direct mail companies report — but still, it represents revenue of about $100 per day. The researchers estimate that if they scaled up their operation to the volume that actual spammers deal in, they could make about $7,000 per day and $2 million per year. That may not be a huge number given how many sales messages are being sent out, but it is well above operating costs. Spam is cheaper than legitimate marketing, and at scale can apparently be effective at generating profits.

Spammers and online scammers continue to ply their dark trade because a sucker is born every minute. A recent Microsoft-backed survey done in western Europe found that 1 out of 44 people have fallen victim to an Internet scam such as a 419 fraud email. That’s a startlingly high number and illustrates why spam and scam emails are still such a huge problem.

Better filtering technology has done a lot to lessen the burden of spam, but spammers aren’t dumb. They’ll always find ways to get around the latest filters. The only way to stop spam completely is to stop responding to it. That should be common sense, but apparently there are enough people out there for which it is not that we’re going to have to keep saying it.