Web Informant #300, 23 September 2002:
Fighting Spam


We all get too much junk e-mails, what is commonly called spam. And lately, there is something that we as individuals can do about it.

For years corporate network administrators have had various anti-spam tools, such as Brightmail and other products, which filter and remove unwanted messages from their systems. But if you run your own domain, or make use of an e-mail account from a service provider, you may not want to spend the money to buy a tool or you may not have control over your e-mail server to install the software. Up until recently, you had several choices.

First, to get very familiar with the Delete key and just remove the messages manually. This is the method that I think most of us end up using. It is brute force, it isn't pretty, it wastes a lot of time, but it works.

Next is to switch service providers and find someone that makes use of commercial-grade spam-fighter on their e-mail systems. I wish there was a list of these people, but for now you are on your own to find them.

Finally is to take matters into your own hands. There are several software tools for free or for minimal fee that can do part of the job of eliminating spam from your Inbox. There are a few caveats, however. First off, you need to be running Microsoft Outlook under a relatively recent (meaning not 95) version of Windows. (One of the tools is available for Microsoft Outlook Express under Windows.) Second, you have to be using a POP server rather than IMAP to collect your e- mail. What is the difference? With a POP server, once you collect your e-mail, it is removed from the server. With IMAP, you can store messages on your server and have access to them from multiple computers. Because of how these products work, they need to make use of the POP protocol. Finally, you have to spend some time setting up the products to work with your particular situation.

The three products that I looked at, and used over the past several months, are Cloudmark.com's SpamNet, MailFrontier.com's Matador, and Sunbelt Software's IHateSpam. The first two are free, the Sunbelt product costs about $20. Sunbelt makes two versions: one for Outlook, and another for Outlook Express. All of the products make use of peer-to-peer networking in a new and unusual way. Every time a user identifies a message as spam, a note gets sent to the vendor's server. As more and more people make this designation, more and more messages get blocked by the software. It is a neat idea, and in my tests I found each product was able to block about 75% of the hundreds of spam messages that I receive daily. It isn't perfect, but it helps to keep the traffic down in your mailbox. And the nice thing about these three products is that they didn't make any mistakes, as far as I could see: none of the messages that were marked as spam were actual messages from my correspondents that I wanted to keep. In science, this is called a lack of "false positives" and it is a good thing indeed.

Each product has slightly different user interfaces and controls, although each allows you to add people or domains that you want to correspond with to be added to a "white list" (meaning that messages from these individuals will always be delivered to you) and people or domains that you never want to see can be added to a "black list." I liked SpamNet the most, and IHateSpam the least, although the differences among the three products were not that significant.

Fighting spam is a tough war, indeed. But these three products give us all a chance to take back control over our Inboxes.

Self-promotions dep't

As you can see, this essay marks the 300th in my Web Informant series. It also marks the beginning of my eighth year of writing these things. (Can it really be? I had to check myself!) It is hard to believe that an almost-weekly series can go on that long (and certainly, if you do the math, it isn't quite weekly, but hopefully not weakly either). I wanted to take a moment and thank all of you, as readers, for all of your attention, comments, interest, debate, inspiration, and just being there for me during these many years. I have had a lot of fun doing these essays, and hope both the fun and the individual essays continue for many years to come.

One of the wonderful things about writing essays that get distributed via email is the nearly instantaneous feedback that happens. No matter what time of day or night I send these out, there are always a few of you that read and quickly comment on them. That is heartening, and stimulating, and one of the reasons I continue with this labor of love.

When I first began these notes, I envisioned them more as a way to keep a small group of people up to date on my web site that I was building. Then it morphed into more of an outbound marketing vehicle for my consulting services. And lately -- as I returned to CMP and to work full-time for VAR Business magazine -- it returned to more of a personal journal. It has all been immensely satisfying. And curious too -- when I meet someone that is on this list, they usually are in the position of knowing more about me and what I have been doing than I am about them. I have almost stopped being in awe of this phenomenon.

Seven years ago, few journalists were writing and distributing their own essays. Now everyone is doing it, and some people are even making a living at it -- bully for them! And now we have weblog software so that anyone can become a famous columnist. I didn't think at the time I started this that I was ahead of the curve.

So thank you, once again, and keep those cards, emails, and comments coming.

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David Strom
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