Copping a spam

It must be something to do with the New Year starting in earnest. The volume of spam received here at the ultra-top-secret, underground, fabulously high-tech, but still quite cozy Gearhead Laboratories increased by an order of magnitude last week.

          It must be something to do with the New Year starting in earnest. The volume of spam received here at the ultra-top-secret, underground, nuclear-hardened, fabulously high-tech but still quite cozy Gearhead Laboratories increased by an order of magnitude last week.

          We've had a half-dozen Nigerian "help us move this money" pitches (otherwise known as the "419 scam") and a flood of "business" pitches from some idiot going by the name of "Dr Ragnar Atkinson" (if you know who he is, contact us - we'd like to send our friend "Vinnie" around to have a "chat" with him).

          Be that as it may, it was time to do something. Thus we turned to SpamCop, a free service run by Julian Haight, the SpamCop sheriff, assisted by a score of deputies. SpamCop provides a spam-reporting service as well as email filtering.

          To use SpamCop you must register. Once you are a bona fide user, you can submit spam directly through the SpamCop website or by email. When SpamCop receives your submission, it parses the spam message header looking for the source of the message. It then tries to identify the system responsible and generates a complaint email to be sent to the system administrators responsible for the spammer's internet access.

          The SpamCop FAQ list notes: "SpamCop uses a combination of Unix utilities [dig, nslookup, finger] to cross-check all the information in an email header and find the email address of the administrator on the network where the email originated. It then formulates a polite request for discipline, including all the information the admin needs to track down the user responsible."

          As an aside, we noticed a very interesting tool that SpamCop uses for its FAQ called Faq-O-Matic. Faq-O-Matic is a Perl script that was designed and built for Unix systems, although the Faq-O-Matic FAQ notes that it has been successfully run under Windows.

          Faq-O-Matic can be used like a regular FAQ except that it is far easier to maintain. But the software really shines when user contributions to the FAQ are allowed (it is a configuration option). Then, comments and additional information can be added by authorised users - potentially a powerful tool in a corporate environment. But I digress, lets get back to our story.

          When the SpamCop complaint is ready to be sent, SpamCop sends you a message with a link to a dynamic page on the SpamCop website. There you can review the complaint and select the addresses that your complaint will be sent to (SpamCop indicates which addresses are likely to be effective).

          Complaints are sent from a "blind" SpamCop.net email address so that your email address is hidden (however, if you reply to a response from a system administrator it will reveal your email address). So far, out of about 40 SpamCop reports we have filed, only one ISP has responded and that reply was automated.

          So, while it is unlikely that you will actually find out if you've caused trouble for a spammer, there is another benefit: Every time that you create a report, SpamCop's list of bad servers that handle spam is updated. Haight says SpamCop usually knows of a new source of spam within 10 to 15 minutes of it sending out messages.

          As we noted, SpamCop is a free service, but the company also supplies a fee-based service that filters your email for you. It can retrieve your mail from your ISP by Post Office Protocol or you can have your ISP forward it to a private mailbox on SpamCop. By running SpamCop's continuously updated filters against your mailstream, the service can get rid of a huge amount of spam. For an average user (0.5Mbytes of mail per week), this will cost around $US12 per year, while a heavy email user (around 3Mbytes per week) will be charged about $US78. Check out the SpamCop pricing. You can read your mail on SpamCop through a eb interface, POP or Internet Message Access Protocol.

          Haight says the new corporate services will provide a "black hole" list (a list of spam sources), a turnkey server solution, or you can have SpamCop handle all of your mail. Pricing is planned to be as low as $US1 per user per year for the black hole list. We're impressed.

          If you've tried SpamCop or you have any thoughts on this approach to spam management, let us know at gearhead@gibbs.com.

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