As we head into a new year, 2008 promises to bring about revolutionary changes in the ways we use familiar communications tools. The premise of the coming integration of different forms of messaging — e-mail, voice, IM — into unified communications systems is exciting. UC makes it easy to get your messages no matter where you are, and it makes it easy for colleagues, friends, and family to find you when they need you.

But is there a dark side to all this convenience? Will UC also make it easier for spammers to find and target you with their advertising messages? What can you do to help prevent the UC dream from turning into a nightmare of unwanted calls, mail, and instant messages?

Voice spam: The next big irritant?

It’s annoying enough to open up the mailbox on your e-mail client and discover dozens — or in some cases, hundreds — of messages trying to sell you something (or worse). But sophisticated spam-filtering programs, mail rules, and other techniques have made unwanted e-mail messages, for the most part, manageable.

In many cases, we never even have to see most of the spam sent to our addresses. And many of us have developed the ability to quickly detect and delete the spam messages that do make it into our inboxes, without ever actually opening them.

But just imagine what it would be like if you woke up tomorrow morning to discover a similar number of unwanted phone messages in your voice mail. Since voice messages generally don’t have subject lines, identifying the “junk calls” might be a lot more difficult. And while reading pitches for body parts enlargement products is bad enough, do you really want to have to listen to a spiel touting the magical abilities of this or that cream, pill, or exercise?

Telemarketing has long been a waster of time and destroyer of dinners, but just as the convenience and low cost of e-mail created an explosion of text-based junk mail, will the convenience and low cost of VoIP technologies result in a similar exponential increase in the number of voice-based advertising messages?

VoIP spam already has a name — actually, a couple of names. Some call it vamming, while others refer to it as SPIT (that’s spam over Internet telephony). You don’t have to be a VoIP user yourself to be subject to SPIT. Spammers can use their own VoIP lines to call your landline (or even worse, your cell phone) and, unlike when they’re using traditional PSTN lines, they usually don’t have to pay long-distance charges, so they can blanket the entire country with spam calls.

The bad news

How does today’s UC technology play into all this? One of the goals of UC is to provide “presence” so that others know when you’re available and can reach you whether you’re at work, at home, or on the go. The “find me, follow me” feature that’s an important part of UC assigns you a virtual phone number routed through a list of phone numbers, including your landline at home, your VoIP phone at the office, and the cell phone that you take with you when you’re out and about.

This could make it easier for advertisers to reach you. This creates the potential for decreasing work productivity as you deal with spam calls, having your relaxing evenings at home interrupted by advertisers, or even using up your precious airtime minutes if you answer when they ring through to your cell phone.

And with integrated text messaging, it can be even worse. You can avoid paying for incoming calls to your cell phone by not answering, but text messages come in without any action on your part, and many wireless providers charge you a fee for every text message. Those 10 or 15 cent charges can add up fast if texting spam is deluging your phone. Just imagine having to pay a dime for every e-mail spam you get over the course of a year.

The good news

If you’re sitting there now, thinking about canceling all your phone services to avoid the impending deluge of SPIT, don’t despair just yet. The good news is that advanced VoIP services don’t just make it easier for spammers to find you — they also make it easier for you to take steps to block their calls.

Screening features and software make it easy for you to block calls from specific numbers, to flag particular numbers as spam, and to select to either send the call directly to a special spam voice mail folder, just hang up, or play a “number is not in service” message without sending the caller to voice mail. You can also choose to do this with unknown callers, so you don’t actually have to have the number of every spammer in order to block them.

Some systems will also allow you to listen in on voice mail calls live (as you can do with an onsite answering machine) and pick up the call if it’s someone you want to talk to or discard it if it’s not. You can similarly block text messages from specific senders or all text messages.

At present, voice spam over IP hasn’t become a real problem. If and when it does (and most industry experts seem to think that eventually spammers will grab hold of this opportunity in a big way), both service providers and users will demand technological solutions similar to those now used to control e-mail spam.

That is, software developers will be responsible for creating programs that can automatically differentiate between spam and non-spam messages and block or isolate those that are most likely unwanted. Are they up to the challenge? Only time will tell, but many companies are already working on solutions.

Meanwhile, somewhat surprisingly, some consumers are fighting for their right to receive spam on their cell phones. Recently a number of consumer groups filed a complaint with the FCC in response to Verizon’s and other carriers’ blocking of advertising text messages, claiming the wireless providers’ actions amount to censorship.

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