Three ways to spamproof your in-box
June 30, 1998
by James A. Martin
PROBLEM: You're drowning in unsolicited e-mail messages.
SOLUTION: Filter your incoming e-mail, contact your Internet service provider, and hunt down the culprits.
Want to make $1500 a week stuffing envelopes? Learn how to foretell the future? Make moonshine in your kitchen? Everything you need may be as close as your e-mail in-box. Unsolicited, bulk-distributed messages are clogging the Net. They can paralyze your Internet service provider's mail system, tie up your modem, and just plain get on your nerves.
Ask James A. Cooley, a self-employed researcher, government policy analyst, and writer in Austin, Texas. Cooley is one of the countless unhappy recipients of junk e-mail. Cooley says he relies heavily on the Net and e-mail for his business, yet nearly three-fourths of the daily messages he receives are of the unsolicited, commercial variety.
"Junk e-mail is all punishment and no reward," says Cooley. "Spam threatens the reliability of my Internet service. It sends unwanted porno advertisements into my home. But most of all, it's a big waste of my time.
While the spam onslaught can seem overwhelming, you can do a number of things to control it. Here are some strategies, provided by Cooley and Ray Everett-Church, an independent Internet consultant in Washington, D.C., and cofounder of the Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial Email, an antispam organization.
1. Set Up Filters
First, try to manage the influx. Most e-mail programs allow you to set up filters that will scan an incoming message's domain name, subject heading, text, and other elements. Cooley says that he has set up Netscape Communicator 4.0 to automatically direct any incoming mail containing 'XXX' in the body of the message into a folder called Junk Mail. With that filter, Cooley says, he's able to weed out pornographic spam.
"Most of the time," Cooley adds, "filtering works well. At the end of the day, I look in the Junk Mail folder before deleting the contents to make sure a legitimate e-mail didn't accidentally wind up there." Cooley says a message from his mother-in-law to his wife once went into the Junk Mail folder because it contained a string of Xs at the end--in this case, signifying kisses.
"I've also found that an effective way to filter is by subject headings," Cooley says. "I've set up Communicator to filter e-mail with subject headings such as Perfectly Legal, Make Money Fast, and so on. That gets rid of a lot of junk."
To create filters in Communicator 4.0, go to the Message Center and select Edit, Mail Filters, New. Type in a name for the new filter, such as hot porn; enter the keywords you want to check for (in this case, hot porn); select the action you want the filter to perform on new messages (such as move them to a particular folder). Then click OK to close the dialog box.
Microsoft Explorer 4.0 is automatically set up to use Outlook 97 as an e-mail reader. To filter incoming mail, go to Outlook's Tools menu, select Inbox Assistant, click Add, type the criteria you want incoming messages to match (such as XXX), then click the folder where you want the matching incoming messages sent.
2. Take Other Measures
But filters on your PC can do only so much. Everett-Church advises asking your ISP exactly what steps it's taking to filter out spam. For instance, many smaller and regional ISPs subscribe to the Realtime Black Hole List, a regularly updated UNIX-based database containing information about known spamming sites. An ISP's servers can use this data to automatically block junk e-mailers' access. Says Everett-Church, "It's a fairly intricate, sophisticated way of using information about junk mail abuse to protect others."
Most junk e-mail marketers include instructions in their messages (often buried at the bottom) on how to remove yourself from their lists. Scrupulous bulk mailers honor your requests, Everett-Church says, while others ignore them or, worse, send even more spam to your in-box.
Don't respond with anger or obscenities, says Cooley. "The worst spammers often hide behind forged IDs. Some even made it appear that their messages came from America Online officials." So your angry response may go to an innocent bystander.
The best way to respond to a particularly irksome spam is to track down the actual sender. Forged domain names and e-mail addresses make it tricky to identify a spammer, so Cooley uses Sam Spade, a freeware program available on PC World Online, to decipher the messages' origins.
The utility is easy to use and can quickly identify the ISP a message was sent from, Cooley says. Armed with that information, he sends a copy of the offensive mail directly to the originating provider as well as to the ISPs that passed it along.
Usually, Cooley explains, all you have to do is address your complaint to postmaster@ISP name.com, or abuse@ISP name.com. Says Cooley, "If you show them evidence that a spammer is going through their service, they may kick the spammer off or, in some cases, sue."
3. Just Delete It
Of course, the easiest way to get rid of spam is to delete it. "But if we all just deleted those messages, where would it end?" Cooley wonders. Instead, he urges others to go after spammers aggressively. Cooley also suggests telling your legislators how you feel about the problem.
"The Internet has helped me be self-employed," Cooley says. "It's a wonderful tool, and I'm going to fight to keep it."
James A. Martin is a PC World contributing editor.
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