Spam Filters for Your Mac: Six Choices

Your inbox desperately needs your help. These reviews of six leading anti-spam programs should help you choose the best option.
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Judging by the marketing campaigns of leading ISPs and email providers, that whole spam problem is history. Advanced defense mechanisms built into modern mail servers have supposedly made junk mail a thing of the past. What little spam the servers might not catch, your desktop email client should; most such programs on the Mac, including Apple Mail and Microsoft Entourage, have built-in junk mail filters that promise to keep your Inbox spic and span.

But somehow, despite the promises, most of us still get boatloads of spam every day. Maybe the server-based filtering isn’t as robust as it could be, or maybe your client’s internal filter can’t keep up with spammers’ latest tricks. Whatever the case, many Mac users find that they need more powerful tools to rid themselves of the scourge of junk mail.

Luckily, help is at hand. Numerous add-on programs use any of several advanced strategies to weed out unwanted messages while ensuring that legitimate email makes it through correctly. Of course, each product comes with an equally grandiose claim of superiority, but they’re not all created equal. If you’re looking to beef up your last line of defense against spam, you should carefully consider the effectiveness and ease of use of each candidate.

Effectiveness

Because most of these programs employ Bayesian filters that learn from both good and bad email to become more accurate over time, their accuracy will vary from person to person according to what you feed them. And, because spammers adjust their tactics to continually outsmart filters, results may differ from day to day too. But in general, I’ve found that filters’ effectiveness increase as they bring a greater number of techniques to bear on spam.

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Bayesian filtering is one good method; using regular expressions to match suspicious patterns is another; checking senders’ IP addresses against whitelists (of allowed senders) and blacklists (of known spammers) is still another.

Some filters go further still by checking for forged MX (mail exchanger) records or looking for spam encoded as HTML entities, images, or other attachments (which may include viruses, Trojan horses, and other malware). The smartest spam filters use a combination of several techniques, assigning a weight to each test, so that a single suspicious feature won’t condemn a message, while a single benign feature won’t spare it.

Ease of Use

My ideal spam filter would function invisibly in the background, zapping spam without making me leave my regular email client, cluttering my screen with new windows, or intruding into my work in any other way. Of course, even the best spam filter can make a mistake, so you need to correct false positives and false negatives. That capability can be handled by a pair of menu commands or keyboard shortcuts accessible in my email client, but some tools make corrections more cumbersome.

Each person’s situation differs, so it helps to be able to fine-tune a spam filter’s settings. Should it be more aggressive or more forgiving? Can I add my own custom rule for some unusual type of spam I get frequently? Can I specify what actions are taken when suspected junk mail is identified (such as deleting it, moving it to a Junk mailbox, or even sending a complaint to the sender’s ISP)? All things being equal, a simpler and cleaner interface for such tasks is best.

With those thoughts in mind, here’s an overview of currently available Mac spam filtering software. I’ve included only those apps that have been updated since the release of Tiger (April 29, 2005) and that work with Apple Mail (though most of these also support other popular email clients).

SIX CHOICES:


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