UW Information Technology

Combatting phone and email spam with new tech and constant vigilance

Man receiving emails on his laptop

By Ignacio Lobos

Spammers have increasingly targeted UW desk phones and email services in the past several months, but a robust response by UW-IT, including a new line phone-call-blocking application and an additional layer of email scanning, is reducing spam, and with it, costly disruptions.

“Phones and emails are valuable collaboration and communication tools,” said Brad Greer, UW-IT Infrastructure associate vice president. “We are focused on keeping those lines of communication open and safe as we continue to take steps to reduce spam.”

At best, spam is a disruptive annoyance that fills email boxes and keeps the phone ringing. At worse, it’s a major source of risk. Consider that in April 2019 alone, UW-IT’s multiple email spam filters detected about 126,000 emails carrying viruses, blocked 175,000 emails with forged “from” fields and rejected 13.1 million emails on blacklists. Of an average 3 million emails coming into the UW per day, UW-IT blocks around 1.2 million — about 40 percent — as spam.

Blocking a rising flood of spam

Spam also has flooded UW desk phones. To keep spam callers at bay, UW-IT developed and now manages a new phone-call-blocking application that came online in October 2018. The app has been so successful, other universities have inquired about how to deploy it.

The app blocked 605,000 out of 3 million calls from October 2018 through April 2019, said Steven Mack, who manages telecommunications operations for UW-IT. The highest number of calls blocked in a single day reached 29,751. Read more about how UW-IT created the app.

Fighting email spam requires constant vigilance

“Spammers are always trying to circumvent spam filters, which means we have to work hard to stay in front of them. Also, we don’t want to make our systems so strict that they begin to stop legitimate emails from reaching your boxes,” Greer said. “Our goal is to keep getting better.”

For email, UW-IT collaborated with UW Medicine earlier this year to add an additional layer of email scanning to deal with the increased volume of email spam. Greer said the UW is already seeing improvements, but reducing spam is a continuous effort that requires constant monitoring and adjustments.

“As a global academic, research and health care institution, the UW spans a great many disciplines and knowledge domains, making it a challenge at times for our filtering to determine real messages from spam,” said James Morris, email infrastructure service owner for UW-IT. “An email about research on medications or pharmaceuticals can be difficult for a computer to distinguish from drug spam.”

“We seek to ensure that we’re only blocking the messages that are truly spam,” he said, “and tagging the rest with a score that individuals can use in their filtering.”

What you can do

To reduce and report spam in your email boxes, see the following resources on IT Connect:

If you’re receiving frequent calls to your work phone or fax that are clearly spam, email help@uw.edu with the subject line “spam call” or call 206-221-5000. Remember that calls that are harassing or threatening should be reported to the police.

This story was published May 2019