Spam blockers: Even good news isn't great
By Mike Langberg
Spam, spam, spam -- we all hate it, and we all want it to go away.
The bad news regarding what's also known as ''unsolicited commercial e-mail'' is very bad. The good news, I'm sorry to report, isn't particularly good.
First, the bad news: Spam is getting worse, volume is increasing and with ever-more devious subject lines trying to trick you into opening junk messages. If nothing is done, one research firm estimates, we'll be drowning in nearly 1,500 pieces of spam a year in 2006.
While working with my colleague Mary Anne Ostrom on a special report on spam, I kept asking experts what ordinary consumers could do to protect themselves.
The very depressing answer: not much.
There is no way to stop the spam heading to your in box today, because spammers keep finding ways around blocking mechanisms. While there are ways to keep your individual level of spam from getting worse, almost everyone with an e-mail account remains a big juicy target for spammers.
Just about the only umbrella offering any relief from the spam deluge is filtering -- software that attempts to identify incoming spam and move it to one side. However, it's virtually impossible to make a spam filter that's 100 percent effective, again because of spammer tricks.
Filtering is about to gain a new level of visibility as the two biggest providers of anti-virus and Internet security software move into the business.
Network Associates of Santa Clara, Calif., best known for its McAfee VirusScan, and its McAfee.com subsidiary purchased a Norwegian company named Novasoft on April 10. Novasoft sells a product called SpamKiller (www.spamkiller.com) which will be revamped in May under the name McAfee.com SpamKiller.
Symantec of Cupertino (www.symantec.com), best known for its Norton AntiVirus, is working on what a spokesman calls ''a program that will aid consumers in their efforts to combat spamming.'' No details are public yet on what shape this program will take, although Symantec is promising to deliver ''some time in the early fall.''
There are already numerous spam filtering products and services on the market, more than I could evaluate myself. So I decided to test-drive just two of the best known services: Brightmail (www.brightmail.com) and SpamCop (www.spamcop.net).
Both are online filtering services -- they constantly check for new spam outbreaks and immediately block those messages before they reach your in box. I figured online services would do a better job than offline filtering tools, where you install or devise a fixed set of spam-blocking instructions on your computer.
Brightmail doesn't sell its spam filtering service directly to consumers. Instead, the San Francisco company makes deals with Internet service providers who in turn offer spam blocking to their subscribers.
Among the ISPs using Brightmail are three of the biggest: AT&T Broadband, under the name E-mail Screener (www.attbi.com/perks/features/emailscreener.html); EarthLink, under the name Spaminator (www.earthlink.net/home/tools/epa/spaminator); and Microsoft's MSN (http://resourcecenter.msn.com/access), which doesn't advertise the presence of Brightmail filtering to members.
Microsoft's Web-based Hotmail service (www.hotmail.com) has a separate spam-filtering feature not connected to Brightmail. Arch rival Yahoo's free mail service (http://mail.yahoo.com) also offers a spam filter.
I picked EarthLink, signed up for an account and verified the Spaminator feature was switched on. I next forwarded all the e-mail sent to my regular address, firstname.lastname@example.org, to the new EarthLink address. Fortunately for the purposes of this particular test, I receive lots of spam -- anywhere from 50 to 100 a day. These messages are what I regard as true spam -- unsolicited get-rich-quick offers, mortgage-loan come-ons, porn and gambling ads, etc. I didn't include anything marginal, such as product pitches that could have been sent to me because I'm a newspaper columnist.
I then carefully tracked what happened.
At the end of a weeklong test, I had received 505 spam messages. Spaminator had grabbed 292 of those messages and put them in its ''Spam Storage'' folder, rather than letting them through to my inbox. I could examine the folder's contents through a Web page or ignore it; incoming spam is deleted after 10 days.
Spaminator failed to catch 213 pieces of spam, which reached my EarthLink inbox -- giving Brightmail a success rate of 58 percent in catching spam. Spaminator did not create any ''false positives,'' where a legitimate message is incorrectly tagged as spam.
SpamCop takes a very different approach. Where Brightmail is organized along typical corporate lines and has a large staff devoted to spam fighting, SpamCop is a network of 10,000 to 20,000 volunteers coordinated by one man, a Seattle resident named Julian Haight, with help from a single employee.
Haight developed an e-mail filter using the spam-blocking list developed by his network. Earlier this year, he spun off management of the e-mail service to another individual, Jeff Tucker of Lawrenceville, Ga., who runs a one-man business called Corporate Email Services.
Tucker and Haight now charge $30 a year for a SpamCop e-mail address, which includes filtering service as well as access to incoming messages either through the Web or e-mail software such as Microsoft Outlook, Microsoft Outlook Express, Netscape Messenger and Eudora.
I paid my $30, started forwarding e-mail to my new SpamCop address and ran another weeklong test.
This time, I received exactly 500 spams. SpamCop correctly identified 397 and let 103 through to my in box for a success rate of 79 percent -- significantly better than Brightmail.
But there was also a downside: six false positives. I received 235 legitimate messages during the test period; in other words, 2.6 percent of legitimate messages were incorrectly shunted to SpamCop's ''Held Mail'' folder, where they are retained for 14 days. These six messages were all mass mailings related to my work and none were crucial; during the test and in several days of subsequent monitoring, SpamCop never falsely targeted an e-mail addressed specifically to me.
One other problem with SpamCop is a lack of handholding. There is limited information on the SpamCop site explaining the e-mail service and no tech-support department available by phone; you can only send e-mail to Haight or Tucker asking for assistance.
Testing Brightmail and SpamCop left me both frustrated and encouraged.
Frustrated because neither service is anywhere close to 100 percent effective, and because I resent the very idea that spammers are forcing me to go out of my way to avoid their odious output.
Encouraged because some spam blocking is better than none, and because the entry of Network Associates and Symantec into spam filtering could push everyone to improve their products.
What does this mean for you?
If you're contemplating a new ISP, I'd look for a provider that offers robust spam blocking. Brightmail, as implemented by EarthLink, is a relatively weak filter, but the lack of false positives makes it reasonable to use Spaminator without ever bothering to see what lands in the Spam Storage folder.
SpamCop is a good choice for those who don't need a lot of handholding and who don't mind taking an occasional quick glance through the Held Mail folder to check for false positives.
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