Viewpoint -- Personal Computing: Prevent Spam Filters From Blocking Legitimate E-mail

Jan. 14, 2005
There's no question about it: Spam is a scourge. This ever-increasing torrent of unsolicited commercial mass e-mail saps productivity and, for some, threatens the very viability of e-mail.

The battle against spam, unfortunately, is creating problems of its own, with people sometimes unable to send legitimate e-mail and other times unable to receive it.

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

This past spring he began experiencing problems in e-mailing out schedules and other messages to parents as a result of the anti-spam safeguards that recipients' Internet service providers (ISPs) had put in place. Many ISPs help people avoid spam by filtering out messages that are likely spam, using keywords and other techniques.

Some of Butt's e-mails 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 as their ISP were given the option by these ISPs to permit the e-mail and future e-mails 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 e-mails per day that his own ISP, Omnis Network, had enacted 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 a high-powered job as a manager of new-product development for Boeing Co. and having a wife and nine-year-old son. Undaunted, he used a different computer to send e-mail to the AT&T subscribers and contacted Omnis to obtain authorization to send out extra e-mail.

Protecting subscribers from spam and enabling them to freely send and receive e-mail is 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 limits users to sending the same e-mail to no more than 100 people. If you need to reach more, Bowling recommends that you divide your recipient list into groups of 100.

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

This can happen even without your knowledge. You can inadvertently become 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.

To avoid run-of-the-mill e-mails from being blocked by spam-filtering programs used by ISPs or individual users, avoid "spammy" subject lines and content, says Anne P. Mitchell, president and CEO of the Institute for Spam and Internet Public Policy.

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.

One technique, if you or your ISP is using a spam filter, is to send a questionable e-mail to yourself. If your spam filter flagged it, changes are the spam filters used by others will do so as well. Another is to use the free service Lyris ContentChecker. You just insert the e-mail you want to test, and the service runs it through the spam-filtering program SpamAssassin.

When receiving e-mail, spot-check your spam folder if you or your ISP is using a filtering program. This will turn up false positives -- e-mail 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 e-mail address, is so close to "spammer," his outgoing e-mail is regularly flagged by spam filters.

Adding the initial of his first name to his e-mail 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 [email protected] or

Sponsored Recommendations

Voice your opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of IndustryWeek, create an account today!