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Spam situation improves

>Q: I seem to be getting less spam in my e-mail these days. Has that problem somehow gotten better?

A: Amazingly enough, things do appear to have improved on the spam front.

In October, computer-security reporter Brian Krebs noted that the closure of a major Russian spam operation had cut down on the volume of junk e-mail. One security research company, M86 Security Labs, estimated a roughly 40 percent drop.

That Orange, Calif.-based shop's statistics since then show that junk e-mail has yet to rebound, despite slight fluctuations. Symantec's estimates record an even steeper drop, going from about 140 billion spam messages a year ago to less than 60 billion.

But things could go the other way easily enough. Spam traffic receded notably twice in 2008 when corrupt hosting sites were shut down, then came back up later on.

Even in the current environment, spam still makes up a dismayingly large fraction of all e-mail: 82.5 percent according to M86, just less than 80 percent in Symantec's data.

There is one other factor to consider: Spammers might be taking their business to other, more profitable channels. Twitter has found that its growing popularity has been "rewarded" with misuse of the microblogging site for spam. Facebook is now a popular spam target, too.

Ever notice how often friends on that site post some video or link -- with text written without their usual standards of grammar and spelling? You can do the anti-spam fight a favor by not clicking on those shared items and by asking those friends if they haven't fallen prey to some viral spam scam.

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>Q: I want to watch some British DVDs that were never released here, but my DVD player and my computer say they have the wrong region code. How do I fix that?

A: This question has come up before here and will keep coming up as long as movie studios try to fine-tune their marketing by making discs that work in one or a few of the six geographic regions defined in the DVD specification.

Almost all DVD players sold in the United States (with Canada and Bermuda, it makes up Region 1) as well as the DVD-playback programs bundled on U.S.-market computers enforce those restrictions.

But some DVD players can be tweaked to ignore region coding, and if you install a free, open-source program called the VLC media player, it's even easier to bypass this restriction.

VLC (videolan.org) is a free download for Windows, Mac OS X and Linux. It might not be the most beautiful program out there, but it gets the job done. As an added bonus, it skips past the usual FBI warning and any trailers you'd otherwise have to sit through.

Blu-ray discs also have region codes, but that standard splits the globe into only three regions. And many Blu-ray titles, even ones from major studios, dispense with region coding entirely. (A competing, unsuccessful high-definition disc format, HD DVD, never supported region codes at all.)

Unfortunately, the picture is much worse with movies offered as downloads or streams online. Legitimate movie sites tend to be confined to the United States. Apple's iTunes Store sells and rents movies in only seven other countries. Netflix reaches only Canada, and Amazon has yet to cross the border at all.

Viewers in the rest of the world can, of course, continue to choose from unauthorized file-sharing sites that don't yield Hollywood any income, and, by the numbers, many of them do.

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Got a question on personal technology? Send a note to Washington Post

columnist Rob Pegoraro at robp@washpost.com. Questions can be answered only through this column.

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