SPAM FILTERS, FRIEND OR FOE?
by LisaBeth Weber. copyright 2007
Are they helping or hurting your inbox? Find out how to tell and what to do about it.
SPAM FILTERS, FRIEND OR FOE?
Spam. Everyone gets it. Nobody likes it. With apologies to fans of the Spam in their diet, email spam has become one of the biggest nuisances to come out of our vital need for 24/7 email. Not since
Monty Python has the word SPAM evoked such a strong reaction, only now, nobody’s laughing. Spam typically consists of advertising, but can also contain malicious viruses, spyware, and adware.
To try and battle unwanted spam, the computer industry offers a plethora of options, commonly referred to as SPAM FILTERS. For the most part, spam filters have helped users avoid a glut of
unwanted junk mail in their inbox. Spam filters are readily available, in free versions all over the internet and can be easily accessed at www.download.com. There are plenty of filter programs also
brought to you by the usual suspects, NORTON, MCAFEE, MICROSOFT, etc., who have many options and add-ons to their products. Most popular email programs have spam filters built in, such as
Microsoft Outlook, Google’s Gmail, Yahoo, etc. However, with good intention comes frustration. Have you ever sent an email to someone, only to find out much later on that it was never received?
It seems like people are experiencing or suffering from “spam filter fatigue”. The spam filters often “filter” out legitimate email and have become increasingly challenging to individuals and companies
in their everyday email communication and business. Too often, email is getting caught in a web of filtering based on parameters that are too broad. The result can be minor or devastating. A case in
point: A school that never received a requested proposal from a contractor when their email was trapped in the spam filter, never to be seen again. The school followed up with an email, which was
never received by the contractor. The contractor did not get the job, and the school ended up paying $250,000.00 more than necessary when it went with a different company. It is cases like this
that can be the most frustrating. Even with proper follow up, it is often a vicious circle. If the receiver has no idea that an email is in exile somewhere, they won’t know to respond. And if the sender
doesn’t follow up, for various reasons that may include not wanting to be too aggressive, they may never know that the email wasn’t received in the first place.
It used to be, how to get rid of spam. Lately, more and more users are starting to ask, “How do we tolerate overzealous Spam Filters!?” Upstanding individuals and companies that have taken the
time to establish email lists based on recipients authorization, (therefore, not spam), are being caught up in the mire of spam filter blocking.
WHAT ARE THEY LOOKING FOR?
It is important to take the time to learn what spam filters are looking for and how best to bypass their sophisticated techniques, if legitimate emails are getting lost in the shuffle.
The very essence of spam and junk mail filters are that they look specifically for red flags and patterns that indicate spam. Consequently, it is vital to take certain measures to assure your email is received.
One of the primary methods is to pay attention to keywords. There are keywords that the filters look for, and if you have an idea of what these are, you can come up with creative ways to avoid using them,
replacing them with synonyms, etc. Some examples of keywords that are instant red flags are, “free!”, “discount”, “opportunity”, “debt”, etc., Of course there are many times when such words can be
perfectly valid in email. Though there are no guarantees, it may help to send some test emails to friends to make sure they receive them. If you are using email lists, update and maintain them as much as
possible. Don’t just delete the message that couldn’t be delivered, look at the “bounce” message on the returned email to see if the address is no longer accurate. If it’s not, remove it from your address
book. Ask the people that you email to please add you to their address books, also known as “contacts”, and “whitelist”, which is a fairly new term for legitimate email addresses. Add information to emails
such as how to be removed from a list. Keep it simple. The more a filter detects a complex email, the more likely it is to be flagged. Keep emails as plain looking as possible, avoiding everything from using
all capital letters, to using larger fonts, color, and elaborate html in the body of the e-mail. Ironically enough, adding a disclaimer that “this email does not contain spam” can actually work against you,
as the spam filters have begun to add this to their ever changing list of criteria in which to filter.
These methods as well as staying judicious should help insure the safekeeping of your emails.
IT IS NOT AN EXACT SCIENCE.
This cannot be said enough, due to the extensive amount of variables associated with ongoing spam and spam prevention issues. Users may or may not participate in specifying their spam filter settings,
plus every program is different. This makes it somewhat of a free for all regarding what happens in the email abyss. Unfortunately, this problem will likely get worse before it gets better. As spammers
come up with new ways to get through the ISP’s, the ISP’s are working diligently to block them. This can result in circumstances that are difficult if not impossible to interpret, such as an identical email
getting through one day and not the next.
The rules seem to be changing every day. Just when you thought it was safe to send and receive email without worrying about a spam filter rejecting it, a new spam filter comes along with new “smart”
technology and sends your email into junk mail oblivion. The inherent problem is that we need and want the spam filters, but it is not an exact science. What makes it even more confusing, is that every
company, every piece of software, every security system, every computer set up is differently, leaving people in limbo and wondering who is not receiving their email.
It would not be surprising if the next generation of spam filters included a sort of “anti-spamfilter spam filter”. In the meantime, exercise common sense in trying to outwit the spam filters, employ
some of the enclosed tips, and when all else fails, hope for the best. As an extra measure, be sure to follow up with people to make sure your email is received, especially if it is your next potential client!
WHAT ARE THE SOLUTIONS?
Companies like MICROSOFT are trying to keep up with the problem. Putting senders into your address book is probably the best way to avoid losing email. When you do this, spam filters
recognize that this is someone you desire to communicate with, otherwise they wouldn’t be in your contacts list. The latest version of MICROSOFT OUTLOOK has a settings area where users can
format their junk email box, what can and can’t come in and how to include senders in your Contacts list. In addition, you can accept email addresses that you may be in touch with but don’t necessarily
have or want in your address book. These are called “Safe Senders”. These are all good improvements, but there is a long way to go.
Microsoft.com says, “If the filter marks an email message as a junk e-mail message, you can add the sender of that message to the Safe Senders List. Email addresses and domain names in the Safe
Senders List are never treated as junk mail, regardless of the content of the message.”
Another area to keep track of and maintain are the settings within your email program. Depending on what program you are using and what version it is, you will likely have the option to set your spam
filter from “low” to “high” security and everything in between. For example, in Microsoft Outlook 2003, there are 5 separate categories in the settings area for junk mail, and within those 5 sections are
many options for regulating what happens to the inbox. However, choose wisely. Your decision can “make or break” your ability to properly receive important emails while discarding suspected spam.
You may want to consider choosing a level that doesn’t risk losing important email, even if it means you may get a bit more spam than your heart desires. At least you will (hopefully) be covered from
losing mail that you need. In addition, you can ask for proof of delivery, a “receipt” of sorts that tells you if your email has been received. Use caution though, recipients may consider this a level of intrusion.
If all else fails, or if you want to be doubly sure, pick up the phone and call. Who knows, maybe all of this will result in more people having good old fashioned conversations again.
To give you an idea of how complex the situation is getting, here are the spam filter settings in Microsoft Outlook 2003.
“Choose the level of junk email protection you want.”
· No automatic filtering. Mail from blocked senders is still moved to the junk email folder.
· Low. Move the most obvious junk email to the junk email folder.
· High: Most junk email is caught but some regular mail may be caught as well. Check your junk email folder often.
Other options are noted by a checkbox:
· Permanently delete suspected junk email instead of moving it to the junk email folder.
· Don’t turn on links in messages that might connect to unsafe or fraudulent sites. To help protect your security, we recommend that you leave this check box selected.
The previous option, though having merit, has caused undue headaches to users far and wide. Many computer users haven’t realized that this is most likely a default selection and that they may be
losing emails as a result. For example, a website like myspace (www.myspace.com) may be unfairly put into a category as described above. If a sender has a myspace page and puts it as a link in their
email signature, the email itself may never reach the receiver if they have that box checked. Let’s say a sender has a small business and they set up a signature in all outgoing emails with links to their
website(s). If they have a legitimate presence on a site that the junk email filter deems unsafe, then bye bye email. To make matters worse, neither party may ever know or realize that this is happening
until it is too late. Ironically enough, the sender believes they are doing good marketing by including web links, when in essence, they could be hurting themselves more than helping.
The other four categories related to Spam Filter settings in Microsoft Outlook 2003 are “Safe Senders”, “Safe Recipients”, “Blocked Senders”, and “International”. Within those are areas to check
off about trusting email sent from my contacts, and automatically adding people to the Safe Senders List. This is basically the same thing as adding names to your address book in order to assure that
they’re not deleted as spam. The problem with this however, is that there are plenty of times when someone who is not in your address book will contact you. The perfect example of this is a new client,
making for the perfect catch-22. They’ve never contacted you before, and therefore wouldn’t be in your “safe” list of recipients. Is it fair that such an email would get blocked or deleted? It’s enough to
make your head spin.
WHAT ELSE CAN YOU DO?
Stay up to date on the issue by reading articles, visiting Websites such as Norton and Microsoft, and most especially checking your ISP’s (Internet Service Providers) Website for updates and information.
Here is what VERIZON says about legitimate mail being deleted by its spam filter:
“Our filters are written against specific spam. Occasionally, a legitimate message will be filtered and deleted, unless you have spam messages saved to your Spam Detector folder.”
There are many stumbling blocks on the road to your inbox, and more and more ISP’s are building on this every day. Analyzing emails every step along the way is the job of a good spam filter. Users customizing their settings to not lose important email is the best way to counter this.
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LESS IS MORE. MORE IS LESS.
There is certainly no shortage of humorous names for various Spam filter software. Here are just a few: Spambully, Spamfighter, Spamcatcher, SpamAssassin, SpamEater, and SpamBuster. Every day more and more software is available to guard against spam. Each time a new product enters the market, the stakes get higher for how sophisticated the filter is. There are more checks and balances, more categories, more refinements to include more potential for catching problems. That is all good, but one of the results is that simply setting up your filter system is requiring more and more time of users.
HOW DO SPAMMERS FIND YOU?
There are various ways this happens, and not enough ways to combat it. Here are a few things you can do to help protect yourself and your precious email address. Have a complex email address, one that is not easy for the spammers to decipher. Protect your email address and consider having a second email address on a free server like Yahoo, Google, or MSN for more public usage. Be sure to never open or reply to suspected spam, as this can actually bring back valuable information to the spammers.