Inbox headaches reached new heights in 2004, mostly thanks to spam. So what does 2005 have in store? Even more spam.

Despite the collective brain share of the best technical and legal minds fighting spam, 2005 is likely to be a banner year for unwanted email.

This isn't just a guess – the evidence suggests more spam is on the way. Email security firm MX Logic reports that spam accounted for 80 percent of all email in 2004, up from 62 percent in 2003. The company predicts the proportion will continue rising in 2005.

It’s also highly probable that viruses will learn a whole new host of nefarious tricks next year.

One new data-stealing hazard is the increasingly popular desktop search software. These utilities help you unearth lost and forgotten files on your hard drive; the category includes Google Desktop Search as well as similar products in development by AOL, Microsoft and Yahoo.

2005 is sure to see a virus exploit such products. Using the index of your data that these programs create, the virus will be able to easily locate your personal information and send it back to crooks.

Security experts at antivirus vendor Sophos agree the number of viruses will grow in 2005. Sophos reports that the number of viruses has grown an average of 40 percent each of the past two years – just as spam has increased.

Elsewhere, look out for big financial companies announcing aggressive anti-phishing initiatives in 2005.

Phishing attacks are a particularly insidious kind of spam, and they're on a steady climb, according to MessageLabs, an email security service. In November alone, MessageLabs counted 4.5m phishing-related missives.

Private industries need to act against phishing scams for two reasons. One, phishing scams hurt the credibility of services like online banking and e-commerce – and businesses don't want customers to become too scared to use them. And private industries need to crack down on phishing scams because law enforcement can't. The cops already have plenty of e-fraud on their blotter. And, technologically, phishers are more advanced than a lot of law enforcement resources.

Compounding the problem is the ongoing increase in processing power: It's become too easy for the average PC user to pump out spam and spam scams, according to MessageLabs.

"We see a lot of phishing scams coming from third-world countries," says Matt Sergeant, senior anti-spam technologist with MessageLabs. Third-world scammers benefit from cheap bandwidth, a good technology infrastructure and poor policing, Sergeant says.

So where do all this spam, virus and phishing attacks leave us? For many small businesses and individuals it's just too much to handle. That's why in 2005 you will see more consumers turning to eeb-based email services like those offered by Google, Microsoft and Yahoo.

Why? Well, it's a pretty good deal. If you can get 2GB of storage, virus scanning of attachments and a phishing-screening service, then paying a nominal fee (or nothing) makes the advantages of web-based email worth putting up with some of its shortcomings.

For the million or so small businesses that manage their own email systems, letting someone else take care of the problems can be a huge relief.

It’s also possible that people tired of missing one valid e-mail in a haystack of spam will turn to instant messaging services from AOL, Microsoft and Yahoo as an alternative to email. It's already very popular to chat about both important and inane things on IM. But 2005 could be the year that IM will widely supplant email.

Supporting this trend is the wide adoption of always-on broadband accounts. People will leave their IM software active and use messaging clients to have hybrid phone and text conversations. The result will be fewer long-distance charges and less reliance on email (and exposure to spam).

Adoption of AOL Instant Messenger, MSN Messenger, and Yahoo Messenger will also be accelerated by the capability to archive and retrieve chat sessions. You can already store records of sessions, but doing so will get easier with features inside desktop search tools. For example, Microsoft's MSN Toolbar Suite automatically keeps searchable logs of chats.

Top email tip: beware New Year phishing scams

Online shopping peaks during the Christmas season, and scammers know this. Be on the lookout for email purporting to be from a financial firm or an online merchant that asks you to divulge personal information at a website. Such scams often artfully mimic authentic communication, but are from con artists exploiting seasonal online shoppers.