SPAM: It’s Not Just Lunch Meat!
here is little doubt that email is simultaneously one of the best and worst components of the computer age. It is the quickest and easiest way to communicate today. And, perhaps best of all, you can send, and read, email when the time is right for you (as opposed to telephone calls which require both sides to be available at the same time.)
The worst part of email—spam. In fact, there are hundreds if not thousands of products and services designed to fight spam—and innumerable articles reviewing these products/services.
Here’s a summary of one of the best overviews I’ve found (from www.consumersearch.com):
Differences Between Types of Spam Blockers
There are essentially two types of spam filter technology: (1) software filters that you install on your computer and (2) web-based filters that filter your email and only forward legitimate messages to your inbox.
Most programs start with a set of default rules that label incoming mail as definitely spam, not spam or undecided. You sort through initial batches of undecided mail and determine which are unwanted. The anti-spam software then learns to create new rules so that you don’t get similar spam in the future. This method can work very well, but users do need to spend time training the software.
Some spam filters block based on content—but spammers often are able to outsmart these filters by misspelling red-flag words and using similar tricks. Another way to filter is with an approved-senders list, initially based on your address book—though you can add more contacts as approved anytime. The difficulty with this method is that often new contacts will be classified as junk until you add them to your whitelist. The converse option also exists: blacklist filters, which block specific email addresses based primarily on web-based databases that identify known spammers. This type of filter is unlikely to block legitimate email, but is also only as good as the database that identifies spammers.
Another type of filter called a “challenge/response filter” will automatically reply to an unknown sender with an email that requires the sender to enter a code or take other action that only a human being could take. The downside of this type of filter is that it can be annoying for senders who are emailing you legitimately to have to go through these steps to reach you. Nevertheless, one study at least has indicated that this type of filter produced the highest level of satisfaction for business customers.
Spam Tools in Outlook
If you use Outlook, you may not need to look any further—as this program includes an integrated spam filter. Outlook uses a community-based filter called SmartScreen and, according to Consumer Search, Outlook 2007 also has an improved ability to deal with phishing messages (spam that is designed to look like it is coming from a legitimate source), and also blocks images in suspicious messages from loading (to block image-based spam).
However, if you are not satisfied with Outlook’s spam filtering, or you use a different email program, the other options below may be of interest.
Software Spam Filters
Internet Security Suites With a Spam-Blocking Component
Some Internet security software (e.g., Norton & McAfee) offer suites that include spam software.
Norton Internet Security 2010 (Est. $45) has received high reviews for both its antimalware detection and removal program and its spam component. A tester at PCMag.com concluded: “In my testing with over 8,000 current real-world email messages, Norton didn’t block any valid personal messages or valid bulk messages, and it only let 12.3 percent of the undeniable spam into the inbox. . . . Only the community-based standalone spam filters are appreciably better.”
Critics have also given McAfee Total Protection 2010 (Est. $70) high marks for spam blocking.
In PCMag.com’s testing, it missed less than 3 percent of spam and blocked only 0.3 percent of valid messages, while not blocking any newsletters or bulk emails. It’s also more flexible than most spam-blocking utilities: it integrates with both the full and Express versions of Outlook as well as Windows Live Mail, Eudora and Thunderbird.
One more suite of note: ZoneAlarm Security Suite 2010 (Est. $70). Zone Alarm uses blacklist, whitelist, challenge/response, and message content filtering technologies. The program also includes an adjustable slider to control how aggressively the program filters.
Standalone Spam Filters
Generally, standalone spam software receives higher marks than spam software available in a suite. One well-known program, Cloudmark Desktop (est. $40 per year) is available for Outlook, Windows Mail, or Mozilla Thunderbird. The program uses a community-based filter: “When a user clicks the Block Spam or Block Phish buttons, Cloudmark compares this feedback with feedback from other users. If other users in the network also consider the message to be spam or fraud, then similar messages are automatically blocked in the future, for all users in the network.” According to PCMag.com, this program “virtually never blocks a valid mail in error,” and though spam is still “guaranteed to get through, the percentage overall is far below that of most other products.” For Outlook users, another option is iHateSpam (est. $30), which is reported by some to be as effective as Cloudmark. For web-based email users, MailWasherPro (est. $40) is available—which filters for spam using whitelist, blacklist, database, and Bayesian filters.
Web-Based Spam Filters
Unlike the software described above, web-based spam filters don’t need to be installed on your hard drive. These web-based services filter email and then deliver the nonexcluded email to your inbox when you go online. One advantage of web-based filters is that they don’t take up space on your computer, but both types of filters (web and software) do slow down email delivery a bit (which is one common complaint of antispam software). In my estimation, though, that’s a small price to pay to avoid the time and risk of dealing with spam.
Two web-based services that received good reviews: ClearMyMail (est. $25/year) and SpamArrest (est. $50/year). ClearMyMail filters your email in 18 different ways before forwarding it on to you. PC Advisor gives ClearMyMail its Gold Award in the antispam category. Spam Arrest uses whitelist and challenge/response filtering, and will work with up to five existing email accounts.
Spam Filter Links
For more information about spam filters, ConsumerSearch recommends these sites:
Virus Bulletin runs an antispam testing program with published results.
Consumer Reports describes email scams that use the 2010 Census to lure you in.
Spam Stoppers has some lists of reviews, plus advice for avoiding spam.
Spamhaus.org is an anti-spam organization that “tracks the Internet’s spammers, spam gangs and spam services, provides dependable real-time anti-spam protection for Internet networks, and works with law enforcement to identify and pursue spammers worldwide.”
SearchSecurity.com has articles on Internet security, including many on spam detection and prevention.
Software manufacturers’ websites:
CA Anti-Spam Plus CA Website Inspector
Cactus Spam Filter
Ella for Spam Control
Aviva Cuyler is the founder and CEO of legal content and marketing site www.jdsupra.com. Send email signature files to firstname.lastname@example.org.
© Copyright 2009, American Bar Association.