Getting Aggressive in Battling Spam

Since we're a long way from email Utopia, here are some weapons in your ongoing battle against spam.
In a perfect world, email would be a beautiful thing.

Friends wouldn't send you bad jokes or trivia that didn't interest you. Messages always would arrive instantly without any delay. At work, email would be reserved for truly important communication rather than 15 screen's full of irrelevance about the new canteen schedule or miniscule changes in worker compensation rules.

And perhaps most importantly, spam would be an unknown commodity.

Sadly, we are a long way from this email utopia. Email security outsourcing firm MessageLabs, Inc. reports that spam exceeded 60 percent of corporate traffic at the end of 2003. Today, it already is over the 80-percent mark.

And while we may never see that perfect world, there are steps that can be taken to effectively minimize spam.

Here are some tips to reduce the amount of spam you have to deal with:

Avoid the Obvious Spam Traps

For instance, don't ever reply to spam. If you do, it just confirms to the spammer that he has a good address.

And when you buy things or sign up for magazine access online, beware of checked boxes that give your OK to send you commercial email. Remember you are dealing with professionals who are often paid to come up with deceptive ways to get you to 'agree' to be added to a mailing list. You click continue and don't notice you just agreed to give your email address to every spammer this side of Spamville.

Even if you're dealing with a legitimate company, make sure those boxes aren't checked. Some companies don't sell your address but many will and then you have no idea where your address may end up.

Guard your Email Address with your Life

It should go without saying that you shouldn't give your email address to others indiscriminately. Yet, I see people putting their real email address in ads and posting it on Websites. Spammers use sophisticated bots that trawl around the Web searching for posted email addresses.

If you must post your email, use a secondary email address -- one you have just for this purpose.

You also can ask a web designer to come up with some way to prevent a bot from recognizing the address. I've seen some addresses that have an extra word inserted in them (drew@deletejunkmail.com) so the bots won't pick up the right address. You are instructed to delete the added word so you can use the correct address.

Be Careful What You Block

Most spam products use black lists or block lists. These are lists of known spammers, and filters use the lists to weed out the junk mail.

The problem with this approach, however, is that good addresses or domains may be on those lists by accident, and mail you want to see gets lost.

Companies also set up their own filters and users can set up individual filters on their own machines. These filters look for specific words -- like 'porn', 'free' or 'Viagra' -- which signal that the email is actually spam.

Unfortunately, spammers are clever types. To get around this, they intentionally misspell words or add symbols -- 'Prno', 'F_ree' and 'Vhiagra' -- so they slip through the filter. You see what is happening and update your filter. In turn, the spammers modify their subject lines again. It quickly can turn into an aggravating cycle.

Think Positive

Most spam products focus on the negative. Yes, they are beginning to add white lists but this tends to be an afterthought and has met with limited success.

A better approach might be spam control. Rather than blocking, it sorts out wanted email from the junk. Further, it isolates email-born viruses.

Spam control works in a similar way to how people sort snail mail. As they go through their mail, they instinctively look for familiar things. They select out what they want from the rest of the potential junk. Then they open the important stuff. Once done, they quickly glance at the remainder in case there's something worth looking at, before tossing it in the trash.

A good spam control product parallels this method of operating. The best ones collect all your mail directly and sort it into different folders based on importance.

Spam Blocking Tools

Corporate email systems typically incorporate spam blocking systems or product add-ons. But for those who work in satellite offices or telecommute, there are several tools you can buy for your laptop or desktop that will do the trick. Three of the better ones are Spam Killer, MailWasher Pro and Mailbox Filter. All of these allow you to filter multiple email accounts, and work with most email programs and email services (such as MSN, Hotmail and AOL). They also send spammers a bounce-back so your address appears invalid, and they're designed to not conflict with your anti-virus software.






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