Is e-mail past due?

Commentary--MailFrontier CEO Anne Bonaparte warns that spam, viruses and phishing has made e-mail something we wouldn't necessarily miss.

Commentary--In the world of IT, e-mail is treated a lot like electricity. We want it to work and not have to worry.

But e-mail's functionality has been devalued by unrelenting abuse in the form of spam, viruses and phishing. We've even reached the point where one must ask whether fed-up users are ready to declare "lights out" on e-mail.

When scammers first began to proliferate on the Internet, e-mail users were often tricked by fraudulent e-mail. The infamous PayPal and Citibank spoofs, among others, shook up the online world. However, we are now seeing a reversal: E-mail users are increasingly citing "good" e-mails as fraudulent, indicating that they are even more skeptical about legitimate e-mail.

In fact, it's not just the major institutions being affected by these threats. The fraudsters are now moving downstream.

In fact, there has been a notable shift in e-mail user perspectives as revealed in the MailFrontier Phishing IQ Test. The Phishing IQ Test, taken by more than 500,000 individuals to date, tests users' ability to identify a series of e-mail samples as either fraudulent or legitimate.

Respondents nowadays correctly identify phishing e-mails 82 percent of the time. But they correctly identify legitimate e-mails only 52 percent of the time. These findings suggest that e-mail users may be getting better at discovering phishing scam attempts but are even more skeptical about legitimate e-mail.

Additional data supports this development. Research and analyst firm Gartner released a report in June, in which more than 80 percent of U.S. online consumers said their concerns about online attacks have affected their trust in e-mail from companies or individuals they don't know personally. Of these consumers, more than 85 percent delete suspect e-mail without opening it.

It is clear: E-mail is at a tipping point. If e-mail skepticism remains unabated, it will have a significant impact on online transactions and communications. Banks are seeing this skepticism impact online banking, and retailers are seeing its impact on e-commerce--just when this Web activity was becoming mainstream.

In fact, it's not just the major institutions being affected by these threats. The fraudsters are now moving downstream. For instance, Plumas Bank, with just 12 branches in Nevada and Oregon, is seeing a rise in e-mail threats deterring online communication with customers.

On the retail side, the Gartner report also noted that one of three respondents reported buying fewer items than they otherwise would because of security concerns. While e-mail's future is far from over, it's not as bright as it should be. There is still an opportunity to strike a healthy balance between skepticism and trust on the Internet and in e-mail communication.

The technology is available today. Organizations should not accept solutions that are "good enough," but rather that demand the absolute highest protection in e-mail hygiene.

Education is key. Business organizations, private enterprises and governments have been proactive in educating e-mail users of the risks of e-mail fraud. From the work of the Federal Trade Commission's Operation Spam Zombies to the education campaigns being launched by financial institutions, alerts to threats lurking in e-mail must continue.

Lastly, industry standards must be agreed upon. As an industry, we have agreed that authentication is a critical piece of the puzzle in addressing today's e-mail abuses. However, it is time that we align on a single standard, toss our own agendas aside and move forward so that implementations can be more widespread.

It is the responsibility of everyone--individuals, private enterprises and government--to preserve e-mail in its most valuable form. If this continues, the light of e-mail will not go out.

Anne Bonaparte is chief executive officer of MailFrontier.