Business in Vancouver: News that works for you

Filters help irritated spam victims fight back

by Alan Zisman (c) 2002 First published in Business in Vancouver ,  Issue #662  July 2-8, 2002, High Tech Office column


More than a few BIV readers have written to me complaining about UCE: unsolicited commercial e-mails, better known as spam.

Sharolyn Harvey, of Striker Capital Corp. recently wrote: "After numerous attempts to have my e-mail address removed, the sender still keeps sending me unsolicited investment e-mail. What are my options? I've threatened to go to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and that didn't work. I've called and left messages."

Spam is not just an annoyance, it costs all of us. These costs include the time spent, both in wading through an inbox stuffed with unwanted mail and (especially for users with dial-up Internet accounts) the time spent downloading these messages.

As well, by requiring extra bandwidth and added storage on your employer or Internet provider's servers, it adds to the cost of providing Internet service.

Spam increased 500 per cent in 2001, about 700 junk messages per person, with each message costing an estimated $1 in lost productivity. And as Harvey discovered, requesting to have an e-mail address removed from a spam list too often doesn't work. In fact, by verifying that you are receiving the junk mail, it may get you more spam.

A U.S. law requiring a mailing-list removal mechanism in bulk e-mail messages was never enacted. While the senders of most spam are based in North America, they often use servers located in other countries, making government regulation difficult to enforce.

The clichÈ is that most spam offers sex-related services. While I receive my share of messages promising pictures of teenagers or offering to enlarge parts of my body, more of the spam that comes my way is about health, privacy, business or investment services. I get offers to find out anything about anybody or to earn $100,000 a year at home using my computer. Perhaps ironically, I receive a steady stream of messages offering to sell me CDs with millions of e-mail addresses so I can send out my own spam.

Recipients of spam are not entirely powerless, however. In Harvey's case, if she simply doesn't want to be bothered with repeated messages from a single sender, she can use the filters (or "rules") built into most e-mail software. It's not difficult to set up a filter to send any messages received from a specified address directly to the trash. She would still be receiving these messages, but she needn't be aware of them.

Many firms and Internet service providers are becoming more effective at filtering out spam, using services such as Brightmail or the Mail Abuse Prevention System database.

As well, a new breed of software offers users more options on their desktops. PC users can choose between McAfee SpamKiller ($60), SpamEater Pro ($38) and the free Mailwasher. Mac users may check out Spamfire ($45). These work in similar ways. Each uses a complex and upgradeable set of filters to log into your e-mail accounts, and provide you with a list of potential spam before you download your mail. As in your e-mail software, you can read, save, or delete messages. Carefully check these lists; you may find them containing e-mailings from lists to which you have chosen to subscribe. Set the program's filters to ignore such messages.

When you've identified unwanted messages, you can set the software to permanently block mail from their return addresses. As well, the programs let users fight back. Each can automatically send a complaint letter, not to the spammer, but to the spammer's service provider.

As well, a bogus no-such-address error message can be sent to the server, making the spammer think that your e-mail address doesn't work.

If, even with your employer or Internet provider pre-filtering your mail, you feel like you're getting too much spam, give one of these a try.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan