Spam fighters respond

My heart skittered with alarm last week when I saw our headline 'Electronic retailers hurt by spam flood', and the avid online shopper in me snapped to attention.

My heart skittered with alarm last week when I saw our headline "Electronic retailers hurt by spam flood", and the avid online shopper in me snapped to attention. The latest nefarious side effect of the junk e-mail flood is that many legitimate marketing messages -- updates that people actually want -- are being filtered out and forever lost.

It's one thing to misplace work-related messages or accidentally block beloved family members, but to be denied a great online bargain? Add another circle to the hell that is spam.

All kidding aside, the one-time business benefits of email are in possibly irreversible decline because of the polluting effects of spam, said several retailers at this month's eTail 2003 conference in Boston. For example, eBags.com sends 8 million emails a month to customers who opt into its mailing list. Last year, 22% of those customers made purchases. That rate has dropped to 13%, and company officials believe spam is largely to blame.

As business losses mount under the barrage of unwanted email, support for legislative action also grows. Even the most anti-government-regulation types are rooting for an Uncle Sam solution to spam. So it was disheartening last week to hear Timothy Muris, the Federal Trade Commission's chief, basically admit defeat before any antispam legislation has even passed Congress. Muris told the Dow Jones Newswires that additional laws will prove useless in stopping the slippery, anonymous spammers who already ignore existing laws with impunity.

So what about a national do-not-spam list? "I'd advise customers not to waste their time and effort," said the FTC's top official. Criminy. What does he think will help? Improvements in technology, he suggested, specifically in software that can intelligently block spam before it reaches in-boxes.

Earlier this month, I wrote about an open-source spam-blocking tool called SpamBayes that users can "train" to distinguish between unwanted and wanted messages (like those from your favourite online stores). (See Skirmishing with spam.) I've since heard from several people who tried it and were very impressed. Other readers also volunteered some accounts of their own spam-fighting successes.

One IT manager reported on DigiPortal Software's ChoiceMail One. It creates a "white list" for approved senders and filters all incoming email through a separate website.

"This is highly effective against spam, since most spammers send from fake addresses," he explained. "So the reply never gets to them, and they never register on the website."

A Lotus Notes/Domino user wrote in about his company's beta-testing of SpamSentinel, from Mayflower Software. "We only use the server product, and it is nothing short of amazing with regards to how well it traps spam," he said. "It does produce some false positives, but it is very easy to release them, and as important, build a 'white list' for those so it won't stop them again."

Another suggestion was to use a "border filter," which effectively outsources the spam problem. One reader's company is using spam-blocking and virus-scanning services from Erado.com. "Over 50,000 emails per month are directed our way, but Erado is wiping out over 70% of them," the IT director wrote, "providing protection, lower traffic on our network and reduced staff time monitoring the spam epidemic."

Now, I would put that extra time to good use with some e-shopping, but that's just me.

Johnson is editor in chief of Computerworld US.

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