Spam ROI: Profit on 1 in 12.5m Response Rate

By 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.

  • It’s like they say: “If there was no money in it, there wouldn’t be spam.” Sad (for normal people), but true!

  • It’s these idiotic people that believe the spam that are ruining it for the rest of us! If nobody clicked on the spam mail, they would stop sending it.

    The 1 in 12.5million that you report is much higher than I expected and I’m not surprised they keep spamming us. And with the numbers you posted, it’s very worthwhile…

    I feel sorry for the idiocy held by some people.

    So what actions can governments take to stop spam? Spam is a global problem, so I think we need a global initiative to try and stop it.

  • I’m sold. So how do I start spamming? :)

  • I’m sold. So how do I start spamming? :)

    haha great post

  • I do wonder about a research team that performs their research by sending more spam… OK, we have an insight into the numbers now—but surely they contributed to the problem during their test? And given they weren’t experienced spammers, I’m betting they hadn’t optimised their copy to get through filters like I’m sure many successful spammers do. Questionable research IMO.

  • Anonymous

    mattymcg, you bring up a good point.
    -Did this team simply hijack the botnet and send a basic spam message (meaning most spam filters would catch it)?
    -Did the team consist of any former professional spammers who knew how to avoid spam filters at the same rate as normal spam?

    I think it’s a good first attempt but if their fake spam message was viewed by 90% less people than normal spam, and simply dropped into a “Spam” email box, the real click through rate of actual spam could be way higher.

  • simsim

    @ mattymcg:

    Here’s the research in PDF. Judge for yourself.

  • jeffvdovjak

    Hasn’t evolution taken it’s course yet? Haven’t those who click the “buy now” button in spam all fallen off the edge of the planet?

  • Hasn’t evolution taken it’s course yet? Haven’t those who click the “buy now” button in spam all fallen off the edge of the planet?

  • Anonymous

    I’m too tired to post my reply maybe a nice cash incentive will sweeten the deal. If anyone would like to receive my take on the problem then please send me $500 :p. Gotta be worth a try.

  • I think these numbers make it clear that the only real solution to this problem is better technical education for non-technical people. I don’t think the people that fall for spam messages are “idiots,” but they are certainly ignorant of the facts! We might be able to make better spam filters, but that is still effort in completely the wrong place considering these figures.

  • Alex

    I cannot understand how the hell these spammers are able to hijack so many servers to do their dirty work, surely your going to be able to tell something is up if your administrating it and if it isn’t in use why not just disconnect it from the network?

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