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    Business in Vancouver: News that works for you

      Positive dispatches from the front lines in the war on spam

      by Alan Zisman (c) 2004 First published in Business in VancouverFebruary 3-9, 2004 Issue 745, High Tech Office  column

      Many users, faced with a deluge of unwanted messages every time they check their e-mail, might find it hard to believe, but things are looking up in the war against spam.

      No, I'm not referring to legislation like the recently enacted U.S. federal 'Can Spam' law; such laws lack real means of enforcement and will have little effect. But over the past year, spam-filtering solutions have become more common and more effective and are now must-have options for anyone wanting control over what's in their in-boxes.

      The best solution is to filter the mail before it even reaches your in-box; many businesses and some Internet service providers are now doing this; they either contract with a service such as Frontbridge or Postini to remove spam before it reaches their network or install one of a variety of software filters on the network mail server. Several of the popular Web mail services have added spam filtering for their users, as well.

      Alternatively, individuals can filter out their own spam. Newer e-mail software, including Microsoft's Outlook 2003, Eudora 6, Apple's OS X Mail and the free Mozilla Thunderbird have built-in spam filtering, most using so-called Bayesian techniques, which analyze message content and learn over time from what you consider spam. I've been using Eudora 6 on my Windows system and Apple's Mail on my Mac, and have found both do a good job of minimizing, though not totally eliminating, unwanted messages.

      Eudora's SpamWatch features are only available in the paid ($70) version; there continue to be free and ad-supported versions, but these lack SpamWatch. Particularly nice is the option that adds everyone in your address book to a "white list"; messages from these addresses are automatically approved. A slider can be used to make the spam filtering more or less rigorous. Moving it to the right catches more spam, but also may mistakenly filter out more legitimate messages. As with all spam filtering it's worthwhile regularly checking the list of so-called junk mail, culling out any messages you did want to receive.

      You may not be ready to upgrade to the latest version of MS Office or want to switch your e-mail software, though Eudora, OS X Mail, and Mozilla all do a reasonable job of importing messages, setup and addresses from Outlook Express and other programs. A variety of products will add spam-filtering to your existing e-mail setup. These include free add-ons such as SpamBayes (for MS Outlook) and PopFile (for most common Windows e-mail programs).

      Not to be left out, commercial utility software makers Network Associates/Mcafee and Symantec/Norton have also released spam-filtering add-ons: McAfee Spamkiller ($70) and Norton Antispam 2004 ($50) respectively. Both are reasonably efficient spam filters, but each suffers from flaws. Spamkiller does not integrate well into your existing e-mail software; you need to run it as a separate application to block new spam or access incorrectly labelled messages. That can be done, but it's unnecessarily clumsy.

      Antispam 2004 adds itself to Outlook, Outlook Express, Eudora and other e-mail clients and runs within those programs. Unlike Spamkiller, it works well if you have multiple users on a Windows 2000 or XP system.

      Like the other 2004 versions of Symantec's popular Norton lineup (Norton Antivirus, etc), it includes a product activation feature. While Symantec hopes this will minimize software piracy, it can cause headaches for legitimate users. Symantec's activation doesn't play nice with backup software; Symantec tech support has suggested users uninstall its products prior to making backups, which is not a practical solution.

      So the good news is that users can eliminate most spam. The bad news is that the two products that many would naturally turn to are flawed. 

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

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