Viewpoint -- The Salty Taste Of Spam

Dec. 21, 2004
Methods to eliminate spam from your e-mail inbox are leaky at best.

A recent poll on found that nearly half of all respondents spend one hour or more every day responding to e-mail. For many people a portion of this time is spent dealing with "unsolicited commercial e-mail" -- aka spam. I confront the spam volume at work more than most people, since in addition to my own two business e-mail accounts, I am responsible for monitoring inquiries sent to several "general" e-mail accounts established for communication with IndustryWeek magazine or its Web site. What I find amusing are solicitors who personalize their messages to IW's generic e-mail addresses. What do they mean "Hot dates are waiting for iwinfo!" or "WWW can refinance a mortgage today?" The amusement does pale by the 42nd time that the same message is received, begging the question: What is the most efficient way to manage (or ignore) the many unwanted e-mail messages that reach my inbox? Some people attempt to use keyword filtering. This is a method where messages containing certain words will either be rejected or sent directly to a trash folder. While this may seem a simple solution to unwanted solicitations and is easy for someone to implement, it can be fraught with problems. Several colleagues use this method to filter out spam, but on occasion legitimate business communications will go to their trash folder instead of their inbox, resulting in a search through their trash folder to find an important e-mail that they received. Occasionally a company network uses keyword filtering. This not only attempts to prevent spam, but also bans threatening, harassing or other unwanted e-mail. As with individual filtering, a major drawback is that there is no intelligence examining the message content beyond simple pattern recognition. Recently a John Brandt column, Creativity's True Costs, was blocked by at least a dozen corporate filters because the word "bastard" was used in the column. While IW's former publisher and editor-in-chief used the word in its proper manner, the keyword filtering software could not distinguish between the use in his column and inappropriate use. There are services that companies can subscribe to that purport to block spamming sites. Unfortunately, many of these services rely solely on individual reports. The complaints from someone with an irrational beef with a legitimate marketing or mailing firm will have a disproportionate effect on any "spammer ratings." For example, SpamCop works on a percentage complaint basis. A small mailer can be banned by a complaint from one person who doesn't recall that they had signed up for a newsletter and won't bother to use a legitimate unsubscribe option to remove themselves from the mailing list. Another option, and one I will use on occasion, is to block individual spamming accounts or domains. I do this only with reluctance. Determined spammers change their addresses constantly or forge mail headers -- making such dams leaky at best. Additionally, completely blocking the largest domains is not possible for me since I need to receive legitimate messages from people using Hotmail, Yahoo!, AOL, and other large e-mail providers. However, blocking some individual accounts and domains does work to prevent a few determined spammers and comes in handy when the latest virus is circulating around. My main approach to handling spam is fairly low tech. I treat junk e-mail much the same way many people treat junk postal mail. I glance at the sender and the topic line. Anything that contains the words HGH (Human Growth Hormone), Britney Spears, investment opportunities, dating services or similar topics is deleted without opening it. This usually chops the 50-150 messages waiting for me at the start of the day down to a manageable dozen or so. Most of the rest of the spam messages become obvious by a quick scan of the message text. If the message appears to be a legitimate newsletter I will try to unsubscribe the address that it was sent to. While I realize this may trigger some spammers into realizing they have a working recipient address, it does get me off some newsletter lists. I see no great solutions to the problem of spam in the immediate future. Some have proposed charging a per-piece fee for e-mail, but many of the marketers are already paying similar fees through the use of third-party providers or as part of their hosting costs. Advocates of a central fee are also vague about how or by whom such a fee would be collected and what the money would be used for. Anti-spamming laws passed by states or nations are practically unenforceable for many of the worst offenders given the global nature of the Internet. For the near future I expect my sender and title scan method to continue unabated. Frank R. Chloupek is IW's Webmaster. He is based in Cleveland.

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