If you've noticed a marked uptick in the amount of spam you have to clean out from your e-mail inbox, it's no illusion.

Spam is indeed on the rise, with networks of zombie "botnet" computers churning out garbled advertisements for Viagra and cheap software all across the world. Spam e-mails can unleash viruses, malware, and other nasty surprises on unsuspecting Web surfers.

The February 2007 "Intelligence Report" by messaging security firm MessageLabs found 77.8 percent of all sent e-mails for the month of February from "new and unknown bad sources" were spam, or 1 in every 1.29 e-mails. MessageLabs reported a 2% increase from January 2007, attributable to the tactic of increasing spam traffic due to holidays -- in this case, Valentine's Day.

"While it is routine to see the bad guys use seasonal tactics to exploit unsuspecting targets, the recent rise in Valentine's Day specific malware proves it is still effective," MessageLabs' chief security analyst Mark Sunner said.

"Although it is commendable that global law enforcement agencies are attempting to address the spam and botnetissue, we are likely to see the spammers continuing to innovate both in terms of targeting and with new techniques to reach the end user," Sunner said.

Another security firm, Kaspersky Lab, published its annual "Spam Evolution Report" for 2006, and found that China, Russia, and the United States were still the largest producers of spam worldwide.

Kaspersky found that 70 to 80 percent of all e-mail traffic on the Russian Internet in 2006 was spam. Kaspersky reported that spammers were becoming much more savvy in their efforts, with spammers increasingly employing graphic images to get past antispam filters, and disguising their sender addresses to look like reputable businesses.

"Spam is becoming increasingly criminalized," Kaspersky noted in the report summary. "[S]pammers are proactively looking for new markets for their services, and are migrating to IM clients and cellular communications."

SiliconRepublic.com, an Ireland-based technology news site, reported that 60 percent of all e-mail traffic to businesses in Ireland was spam, according to IE Internet. Like Kaspersky, the report found the majority of spam originating in the United States, though it noted a continuing trend of moving large-scale botnet operations out of the U.S.

Canada's privacy commissioner, Jennifer Stoddard, noted in a press conference on March 1st that Canada was the sixth largest source of spam e-mails and the only member of the G8 countries to not have any comprehensive anti-spam legislation. Stoddard renewed her call for the Canadian government to address spam proliferation, noting spam's role in fraud and identity theft.

Of course, given the general ineffectiveness of legislation like the U.S.'s CAN-SPAM Act, some observers noted that it might not be the best idea to rely on governments to solve the spam problem.

What You Can Do

• Install antispam software. At this point, surfing the Web or using e-mail without a spam filter or antispam protector is simply foolish. Most software security programs include antispam filters, as well as firewalls and virus protection. Sites such as Cnet.com can help you find and compare products before buying.

• Use multiple e-mail accounts. Filtering your e-mail traffic according to category will help reduce the likelihood of spam cluttering up your inbox. Use one e-mail address for shopping online, one for personal conversations, one for business, etc. Web-based e-mail services, such as ConsumerAffairs.org, Gmail and Yahoo Mail, come with built-in spam filters and tools to remove spam manually.

• Don't give out your e-mail address randomly. If a service or offer doesn't automatically require an e-mail address, don't provide it. Don't post your e-mail address anywhere on the Internet where it can be publicly viewed, as that will increase the chance of it being picked up by "crawlers" attached to search engines, which makes it an easier target for spam botnets. If you do, take out the symbols in the address and write them as words. Instead of "johndoe@youremail.com," write "johndoe AT youremail DOT com."

• Don't open e-mails unless they're from trusted sources. If the e-mail looks at all suspicious, move it to your spam filter and delete it. E-mails that purport to be from PayPal, Bank of America, etc., are invariably "phisher" spam mails, designed to get you to fill out your information by appearing legitimate.