Imagine that every time you pick up a ringing phone, you have to listen to a half dozen ads before you talk. This is becoming the situation with e-mail today.
Spam–unsolicited commercial e-mail–bombards us every day, sapping both patience and productivity. Most of us spend at least 10 minutes each day dealing with spam at work and home, according to a recent survey commissioned by software utility maker Symantec. Meanwhile, the volume of spam continues to rise, as hucksters pitch porn sites, pyramid schemes, quack health remedies, online casinos, mortgage refinancing, and so on.
With the federal government largely on the sidelines, and with Internet service providers typically offering at best only partial solutions, many computer users are taking matters into their own hands. They’re using technology to tackle the problem.
Just as you need anti-virus software to keep from losing data and a firewall to keep your data private if you have high-speed “always on” Internet access, many people feel that you now need spam-filtering software as well.
These programs do what you can do manually with many e-mail programs–filter out messages that include subject lines such as “Make Money Fast.” But specialized spam-blocking programs also analyze incoming e-mail using sophisticated rules that look for many other telltale signs that a message is spam.
One important caveat with all spam-filtering software is that none is perfect. All let some spam through and, most important, flag a small percentage of legitimate e-mails as spam.
Fortunately, these programs typically let you view the “From” addresses and subject lines of flagged messages. During at least the first couple of weeks in working with a program, you should use this feature and then instruct the program to stop blocking e-mail from people you know are not spammers.
Spam-filtering programs used to be a cottage industry, with entrepreneurs offering solutions. These programs are still around and can be effective. But, smelling money, the big boys have entered the spam-fighting game, including utility giants Symantec Corporation and McAfee Security, a division of Network Associates Inc.
Symantec’s newly released Norton Internet Security 2003 (http://www.symantec.com), a suite of online security and privacy utility programs that costs $69.95, now includes the spam-filtering program Norton Spam Alert. Testing indicates that it does a decent, if not perfect, job.
McAfee Security’s SpamKiller (http://www.mcafee.com) has been around a bit longer–the company acquired the program last April. It’s slicker than Norton Spam Alert, letting you, for instance, automatically send complaints to the spammer’s Internet service provider. SpamKiller costs $39.95.
Both Norton Spam Alert and McAfee Security’s SpamKiller work with different e-mail programs. Other spam-filtering programs from smaller vendors work with just one e-mail client and require less tweaking to get started.
The appropriately named iHateSpam, from Sunbelt Software (http://www.sunbelt-software.com), works with Microsoft Outlook and Microsoft Outlook Express. The version for Microsoft Outlook does a better job of filtering out spam. It costs $19.95, with a 30-day free trial.
Spamnix, from Spamnix Software (http://www.spamnix.com), works only with Qualcomm’s Eudora E-mail, and it works well. Among other things, it looks for forged “From” addresses, subject lines with lots of exclamation points, and salacious words in the body of the message. It costs $29.95, and you can try it out for 30 days for free.
Some spam haters have made the argument that it’s unfair for people to have to pay to stop the intrusion of these unwanted messages. They prefer other solutions.
Many Internet service providers use “blacklists” to stop the transmission to their users of e-mail from servers that are known sources of spam, but this can prevent a good deal of legitimate e-mail from being received as well.
Lawsuits help, but only partially. America Online has a good record of forcing spammers into mega-buck settlements for violating its terms of service, but other spammers just come along and take their place.
Legislation to prohibit spammers from misrepresenting their identity or force them to label their messages as ads would help as well, but again only partially. If it were enacted nationally, some spammers would move offshore away from such restrictions.
The best idea I’ve heard would be a controversial one: You get charged one cent for each e-mail you send, a charge that would be credited back to you if your recipient responded. New Internet protocols and an infrastructure to administer the system would need to be developed, but if they were, spammers would go broke.
Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book “Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or http://www.netaxs.com/~reidgold/column.