Just how much is spam costing business? There have been many surveys looking at this issue – many of them quantifying the cost per employee, and most of them have been consistently misleading, if not totally wrong.

In fact, spam statistics are probably up there with government statistics for unemployment during the 80s, NHS waiting figures in the late 90s and train performance indicators at any time.

Let’s take the latest report from Nucleus Research in the US. This estimates it costs $874 per employee per year dealing with spam. Now, this survey is unusual in that it hasn't come from a company with a clear vested interested in selling software for dealing with spam. It should therefore present more accurate figures than most – that, however, is a decidedly dubious assumption..

The assumptions are these: An hourly rate of $30; a work year of 2,080 hours; 13.3 spam messages a day; 6.5 minutes spent on them a day.

The 2,080 hours figure is fine. It's basically nine-to-five, five days a week for 48 weeks a year. The 13.3 spam messages per day seems quite high for business email (something we’ll come to later) but we'll stick with it. Let’s now switch to UK figures. $30 is £18 an hour. This equates to a wage of £37,500 for your average office worker. The average wage of a UK worker is £19,266 - almost half this.

Next, if an employee spends 6.5 minutes on 13.3 spams, that is 29.3 seconds per spam email. This is, frankly, ludicrous. The vast majority of spam is clearly spam. And people usually delete it immediately, usually it takes less than a second on average per spam. In fact, it is often the email software that has trouble keeping up with clicks on the delete button. How on earth could someone spend 30 seconds looking at a spam message before deleting it? They would have to be mentally deficient.

Of course, the issue could be that employees are spending time reading them in detail and replying to the Nigerians with constructive banking arrangements or companies offering some innovative enlargement surgery, but is that an issue with spam, per se. That’s surely is the question of how long employees spend on non-work related email – an important issue, but not relevant to this particular question.

Another escape route taken by anti-spam vendors is saying that 29.3 seconds includes all the extra time taken by IT bods, and includes the cost of installing and looking after email monitoring equipment. If that is the case, this should be an entirely separate category since one deals with the effect of spam on employees and the other the cost of dealing actively with the problem. It is a phoney and false argument.

Real figures
So, let's put the Nucleus assumptions to the test with real figures. Let’s say the average office worker is on the higher-than-average wage of £25,000. And let's say they spend on average three seconds per spam (count three seconds - it's longer than you think). That gives a rather less exciting figure of $81 (£49) per year per employee, as compared to the $874 offered by Nucleus.

But the real problem is that while the time taken to deal with spam by employees seems to be a good measure of how much of a problem it is, this very assumption is flawed. We are looking in reality at employees spending about a minute a day dealing with spam. This is negligible. You don't find, for example, reports saying how many millions it costs because people take longer going to the toilet than they need to. Or that the extra time it takes lifts to get to the bottom floor is costing billions a year. Or that narrow corridors mean people take on average 10 seconds longer a day to get to where they want to be. If you are talking about employee time wasted, there is an infinite number of problems that could be costed. It could be argued that employees nipping outside for a fag break cost a lot more – although smokers would argue that this time is important to them for maintaining efficiency.

Some people argue quite reasonably that spam has its major effect at home and not at the office. So why do we always hear about the office problem and the cost per employee? That’s answered simply: it’s where the money is.

The argument behind this is quite logical, and was put forward eloquently by Pew Internet in a report in December 2002.

"Most spam doesn't reach email accounts at people's work places," the report says. How come? Because finding email addresses at places like Hotmail is pretty easy - a random character typed in is likely to hit a real address - how many people have JohnSmith63 style addresses because JohnSmith1 to 62 have already gone?

Work email addresses are completely different. Most of them are not to be found in easily accessible public directories and can't be guessed at. As such, their visibility to spammers is significantly lower. This is borne out by the figures, according to Pew Internet, 52 per cent of office workers reported they had no spam at all. Just under a fifth said less than 10 per cent of their mail was spam. Starkly different from the numbers presented by anti-spam software vendors.

So why does it seem to cost so much per employee? Nucleus argues that part of the cost of managing spam is down to the individual filters that employees have installed on their own PCs. Fair enough, although surely a company should have a corporate-wide email policy – would employees be expected to install their own word processing software?

It seems that the only real answer in dealing with the cost of spam is to forget about cost per employee. By arbitrarily assigning amounts, the real cost is being blurred. Yes, spam is a menace but we should be intellectually honest in the way we fight it – that way, we will all benefit.