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Spam Filters

Wednesday, November 17th, 2004 by | Filed Under: E-Mail Help
 
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Q:
Are there any good spam filters out there?

A:
If you search our software store, you will notice that we do not sell any spam filters. Is this because we want your inbox to be flooded with porn and scams? Is it just an oversight on our behalf?

Well, no. I’m sure I’ll be bombarded with recommendations from y’all, but so far the anti-spam tools available are mediocre, at best.

Let’s look at what we feel is the worst kind—keyword filters. Basically, if they detect a certain keyword in the text of your e-mail, it gets blocked. We’ve put together a common list of these on our site and then used some of them in regular language to show how easy it would be to have an e-mail accidentally blocked that was sent by a friend or business associate. (We couldn’t put it in here or anyone with keyword spam filters wouldn’t get this newsletter!)

Now, some keyword filters operate on a point system that counts occurrences of “filtered” words (or, believe it or not, text color and size). Each is awarded a value and if it adds up too high, it gets blocked. We ran across one that was so ridiculous that disclaimer and removal information added up to enough to block our newsletter! However, if we sent our e-mail without that information, that same ISP would accuse us of spamming!

The sad thing is that spammers get around this by making the entire newsletter a graphic. You open the e-mail, it loads the picture with the ad, and your spam filter is bypassed.

However, there is another form a spam filter that tries to take care of this too. It basically tries to block any pictures from coming in. So much for using e-mail to send family photos. MSN and Hotmail recently bragged about adding this “feature”. If someone isn’t in your address book, then any pictures coming from them get blocked by default. (Add steve@worldstart.com to your address book now so you don’t end up with a red X where a picture should be—this recently took effect). I know many readers who like this feature, and I guess you can retrieve the lost images, however the nasty images you are trying to avoid often get through anyway, while the legit graphics do not!

We’ve also seen another type of “spam filtering” service show up recently. They basically act as an intermediary between you and your e-mail. When someone sends you an e-mail, it has to pass through this service first. If it’s an unknown e-mail, the service mails the sender a message requiring a real person to confirm that the mail is coming from a legitimate address.

Sounds OK, right? Well, it gets better (or worse).

We did reply to one of these “sender verification” services, only to have them spam us a few days later trying to get us to join! There was no mention that they were going to collect our e-mail when we sent the confirmation message, but here they were spamming us!

Then we went to their site and took a closer look. Turns out that if you sign up for their service, they will do the check-and-confirm thing for you, but in return they reserve the right to send you messages from their adverting partners (anyone with a checkbook). That’s right, they block all the spam—but their own! So, you’ll still get junk mail, only now you’ll only get their junk mail. If that’s not a scam, I don’t know what is.

The next type of spam filter is not as bad, but can still cause problems. Basically, it checks email against a “blacklist” of known spam sites. Better blacklists have a process where a publisher or ISP can get “unlisted” if they were put on by mistake, but not all take this common sense approach.

We recently found a service that many ISPs are using as a blacklist source. This company has a “take no prisoners” policy. Once they decide you’re a “spammer”, they put you—and anyone else using that webhost—on the blacklist. You may not be able to receive e-mail from a friend because of something some site you’ve never heard of did. This company doesn’t even provide contact info, but ISPs all over the place are using them.

Just this month dozens of technology experts, government officials, industry executives and lawyers flocked to Washington to discuss the problem of spam and basically concluded that it’s just part of life for now. FTC commissioner Orson Swindle (ironic name ;-) said. “No single law, no single new technology, no new initiative, no new meetings are going to solve this problem alone.”

So, I guess we’ll just work with what we have until a clearer, more comprehensive approach can be found. Your own email program (Outlook Express, Netscape Mail, web-based) should have built in features you can use to reduce unwanted email. We regularly run tips on how to create filters, block addresses / domains, and how to stay off spammer mailing lists. Loyal reader John K. wrote to tell us, “Using your tips I have reduced my spam almost 100%. I used your tips on adding domains to the blocked sender list, disabled Windows Messenger and Messenger.” So, it can be done.

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