Maryland Bar Bulletin
Publications : Bar Bulletin :
May 2007

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 TECHNOLOGY TALK:

BY JOHN ANDERSON  

You've Got Spam!

Into every inbox, some spam must flow. If you have an e-mail address, you are sure to have received spam – unsolicited e-mails or junk mail. Perhaps a few messages – or perhaps enough to make you consider abandoning your current e-mail address. Often spam comes creeping in disguised with a friendly subject line. You think since there is no attachment, or that your virus filter is sufficiently up-to-date that it most likely won’t harm your computer if you open it, only to be bombarded with an oddly-worded message stating that you can get /V\edic@ti0n (medication) without a prescription. And because of the anonymous nature of e-mail, the products offered are generally more personal or downright distasteful. The telemarketer that calls you at dinnertime would never bring up any endowment issues or make assumptions about your sexual performance.

For most people, spam might not be a huge issue, but just like mosquitoes at a picnic, those few little things can get very annoying if you have to deal with them every time you turn around. Spam has created and fueled an entire Internet industry devoted to stopping it. Well, not stopping it – just keeping it from reaching your inbox.

Spam Filters
Spam filters (or junk filters) are used to block or filter spam. They are included with most e-mail client software like Microsoft Outlook and Eudora, and even free e-mail services such as Yahoo Mail and Hotmail. You can also subscribe to online services such as Spam Motel or Spam Cop.

Spam filters are set to recognize a list of predefined keywords and trigger words that appear in different parts of an e-mail message. There are usually a separate set of keywords for the senders address, subject and message body. Some of these keywords might cause a message to be immediately blocked. Others may just add a certain number of points to a message. If there are too many points, the message will be blocked. This eliminates “false positives” or valid messages that contain words or phrases commonly used by spammers.

If you consider purchasing spam-filter software, look for software that will allow you to customize the settings so that you will not miss any important e-mail. But be warned: some spam will leak through and you will likely filter out the occasional legitimate e-mail. As long as the program you elect to use allows you to check the filtered-out mail, you should be fine.

Good Intentions
In order to combat the amount of spam reaching their members, many Internet Service Providers (ISPs), including AOL, are installing their own spam filters. This could mean you are missing out on important e-mail or your important messages are not reaching their intended recipients. Some e-mail, for example, is filtered out if it contains certain “spammy” words. If you are a member of an opt-in newsletter, you might not receive the message just for the fact that it is being sent as “bulk mail”. It might be filtered to a “Bulk Mail” folder, but more often it might just be blocked without notification to either you or the sender.

Maybe you suddenly stop receiving a newsletter that had shown up reliably in the past, or you sign up for another and never see a single issue. Newsletters and mailing lists are the most common victims of overzealous anti-spam filters.
Here is the problem with many of the filters installed by ISPs:

  • You may never have the option of seeing the e-mail that has been filtered out.
  • You may not be able to adjust any of the filter settings.
  • As a recipient of e-mail, you could miss your subscriptions and important business e-mail.
  • As a sender, your newsletter may not reach all your subscribers – and you may never know. Many of these ISP-installed filters do not bounce the mail back to you; it just looks as though the e-mail went through without problem. If it does bounce back to you, it might just be an auto-message from the ISP with no descriptive information provided.

The Filter for Your Anti-Spam Filter
It would be better, of course, to adjust your filter settings to allow a little spam in than to completely block a legitimate message. In an attempt to make a more reliable filter, some companies are marketing a spam-filter filter to help relieve the burden of reviewing messages that have been moved to your spam messages folder. The filter-filter will step in and review messages marked as spam, looking for “false positives” (it looks like spam, but it isn’t).

Blacklists
Blacklists are the original anti-spam solution. Blacklists identify spammers and block all mail from them. Unfortunately, these days, they tend to harm only legitimate e-mailers. Spammers expect to be blocked and therefore constantly move on, leaving ISPs and their customers to contact the blacklist people and get de-listed, a time-consuming and fractious process.

My Advice
The best filtering solutions tend not to block even the most outrageous legitimate e-mail and allow users to subscribe to spam they like. Find a good customizable filter program and watch for missing messages that might be blocked by your ISP. They can also change their filtering polices at any time. If you think there might be problem, contact the sender and call your ISP.
Another tip is to create an e-mail account with a free e-mail provider, like gmail.com. Then, use that address when online stores or other forms require an e-mail address, herding spam away from your personal address.

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Publications : Bar Bulletin: May 2007