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Prevent Spam Filters from Blocking Legitimate Email

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There’s no question about it: Spam is a scourge. This ever-increasing torrent of unsolicited commercial mass email saps productivity and, for some, threatens the very viability of email.

The battle against spam, unfortunately, is creating problems of its own; sometimes people are unable to send legitimate email, and other times they’re unable to receive it.

Barring Butt

Jim Butt sends a lot of email. He handles electronic communications for two athletic organizations that offer soccer, basketball, baseball, and other programs for about 1,500 kids.

This past spring he began experiencing problems with schedules and other messages emailed to parents because of antispam safeguards that recipients’ Internet service providers (ISPs) had put in place.

Since many ISPs filter out messages that are likely to be spam by using keywords, among other techniques, some of Butt’s emails were being rejected–treated in the same way as the sleazy come-ons for porn sites, male “enhancement” products, and get-rich-quick pyramid schemes.

Those recipients who used AOL and Earthlink were given a chance to choose to permit current and future emails from Butt to go through. But AT&T just locked him out completely. Butt had been placed on a blacklist.

Another problem Butt experienced was the limit of 200 outgoing emails per day that his own ISP, Omnis Network, had instituted to prevent people from using its service to send out spam.

Butt is a super-volunteer, spending up to 15 hours a week helping out, despite having both a high-powered job as a manager of new product development for Boeing Co. and a wife and nine-year-old son. Undaunted, he used a different computer to send email to the AT&T subscribers and contacted Omnis to obtain authorization to send out extra email.

The Zombie Factor

Protecting subscribers from spam and enabling them to freely send and receive email requires a delicate balance. “We and many ISPs have checks in place to reduce spam,” says Mitch Bowling, vice president of operations and technical support for Comcast Online. “We also try to avoid impacting customers negatively.”

Currently, Comcast keeps users from sending the same email to more than 100 people. If you need to reach more, Bowling recommends that you divide your recipient list into groups of 100.

Comcast will also block you from using a program on your own computer to send out email if it determines that you’re sending what it considers an abnormally high number of emails per day–tens of thousands, says Bowling.

This can happen even without your knowledge. You can inadvertently become a victim of a zombie program, used by spammers to turn your computer into a spam relay, if you aren’t using firewall software to protect your PC. In these cases, Comcast will help you clean up your computer and prevent it from being compromised in the future.

What Signals Spam

To preclude having run-of-the-mill emails blocked by spam-filtering programs that ISPs or individuals use, avoid “spammy” subject lines and content, says Anne P. Mitchell, president and CEO of the Institute for Spam and Internet Public Policy (www.isipp.com).

Don’t put words such as “free,” “make money,” or “sex” in subject lines. Be careful about your use of punctuation, particularly exclamation points. Avoid call-to-action verbs such as “buy,” “save,” and “get” in subject lines. Forget about disguising trigger words by replacing letters with punctuation marks, which is seen as an indication of “spamminess.” Don’t use all capital letters in subject lines.

If you use a spam filter, or your ISP does, test any questionable email by sending it to yourself. If the spam filter that affects you flagged it, chances are good that the spam filters used by others will do so as well. Another way to test is by using the free service Lyris ContentChecker (www.lyris.com/contentchecker). You just insert the email you want to test, and the service runs it through the spam-filtering program SpamAssassin.

Also, if your mail goes through a filtering program, spot-check your spam folder. This will turn up false positives–email that was blocked and that shouldn’t be in the future.

Finally, take solace in the fact that things could be worse. Earle E. Spamer (his real name) is a librarian at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. Because his last name, which is part of his email address, is so close to “spammer,” his outgoing email is regularly flagged by spam filters.

Adding the initial of his first name to his email address wouldn’t work either. Then he would be seen as “e-spamer.”

Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at reidgold@netaxs.com or www.netaxs.com/~reidgold/column.

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