How to Really Eliminate SPAM

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I hear family and friends talk about how much SPAM they get — up to hundreds of messages each day. They say it takes forever to sort through their inbox. I tell them I don't have a problem; I use a verification service. Many times, they ignore my advice, probably thinking they've tried that — filters and special junk folders.

Then I Google for information about how to stop SPAM and I mostly see the good 'ol tips, such as not giving out or publishing your email address on the web; nothing much about verification services

Well, I'm here to tell everyone to stop using those traditional filtering methods! Try a email verification or challenge service! We'll figure out exactly what this is and how to get it.

Traditional email filters and their problems

Email filters can be installed on your email server, where you manage it from your on your email provider account. Filters can also be installed on your computer, such as features included with Outlook or those you purchase and install.

These filtering solutions have evolved from using simple methods to filter, based upon trigger words found in messages, to a complete analysis of the sender details and message. Once a message is tagged as SPAM, it may go into the junk or SPAM folder, instead of your inbox. Some filters will just reject the message and the sender receives a bound notice. The problem with these email filters is that you'll probably still get a lot of unwanted messages in your inbox, and some good ones in the junk folder.

Filtering solutions may completely block people from sending email to you, which can be good or bad. It can be a problem if the solution tracks where SPAM messages are coming from and they add the originating mail server to their block list. This means other people (even from other domains) that use the shared server, will have their emails blocked as well.

This happened to me at the place where I had my website hosted previously. Once in a while I would get rejection notices when sending messages to people whom use this type of filter. In the end, I moved to another web host, away from one that had SPAMers using its service. To help prevent this problem from being even worse, you should always make sure messages flagged as SPAM are either completely rejected (like I described) or that you can check these "SPAM" messages. This way messages don't just "disappear", and the sender knows their message isn't going to get to the person.

Challenge or verification based solutions

Personally, I think challenge or verification-based SPAM solutions work tremendously better for sorting out SPAM than the traditional filters. This type of service only puts messages in your inbox that are from someone on your approved senders list. It's not as much work as you might think. When you send an email to someone, they are automatically put on the approved list. If someone new sends you a message, they get a verification email right back in which they are told about the service. In order for the message to move to your inbox, they may have to click a link, type in letters and/or numbers from an image on a web page, and hit Enter.

Some services require the sender to reply, with a dummy message, to the verification email in order to complete the process. Then, anymore messages they send to you automatically go to your inbox. As we'll get to soon, there are a few more ways to manage your sender list.

Like any other SPAM solution, challenge-response services aren't perfect.

Your service may catch other peoples’ verifications. You may not get their verification email, or the original message, until you find their challenge message in your unverified mail. Additionally, keep in mind these challenge emails require action from people you communicate with. Some people get ticked off when they have to do the verification. I've received unhappy replies before when sending messages about business services to new companies.

Understand that even when the address you send to is added to your approved list, the person that replies may still have to do the verification if they are sending from a different address. This can happen when sending to an organization's general account (info@domain.com) and the message is forwarded to a specific person (bob@domain.com) in order to reply.

If you do want to look into this type of solution, here are a few providers:

Some ISPs, such as EarthLink, offer this service for their email service.

Next Page: Using verification services

Tips on using email verification services

Keep the following in mind when using a challenge-response solution:

  • Import email addresses to your approved sender list: If this feature is available and you have a list of people whom you communicate with, such as from an address book, importing can save a lot of time for you and them.
  • Consider adding an organization's domain to your approved senders list:As mentioned earlier, though the address you send messages to is added to the approved list, the message might be forwarded to a another person at the organization. Therefore, to prevent the person from having to go through the verification process, you might want to add the domain to your approved domain list. Just remember you shouldn't add shared domains, belonging to ISPs or email providers — you don't want emails from any AOL or Hotmail user, for example.
  • Consider adding the domain when initiating communication from a contact form on a site: Adding an organization's domain to the approved list is especially helpful when initiating communication using a contact form on their site, since no address for the organization will be automatically added to your approved list.
  • Don't add your own address to your approved senders list: SPAM messages can arrive looking as if they were sent from your account, so approving your address will probably let unwanted messages through.
  • Add email lists to the special approved to list: If you belong to an email discussion or newsletter list where the messages show a different address for the To field (instead of your email it shows the list's), see if your service lets you specify approved email list addresses.
  • Check unverified email periodically: Again, this service isn't always going to work like we want it to. Be sure you check messages that haven't been verified. If you find messages that you want to let through, select and verify them. You might find legitimate automated emails, or even messages from people that haven't yet completed the process.

The Anti-SPAM Battle

We discussed how verification solutions usually work better for you than filtering. We also discussed tips on using this challenge-based service. Of course, neither solution will be 100% effective in blocking unwanted — and only unwanted — emails. You'll probably have gripes about both types.

Eric Geier is an author of many computing and networking books, including Home Networking All-in-One Desk Reference For Dummies (Wiley 2008) and 100 Things You Need to Know about Microsoft Windows Vista (Que 2007).

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