News last week that Internet service provider Verizon settled its lawsuit against Detroit-based spam king Al Ralsky was of little comfort. Ralsky agreed to pay a fine and stop spamming Verizon customers, but he still has plenty of other targets. And there are still hundreds of other spammers who have never visited a courtroom and are all too eager to fill our inboxes with business propositions from deposed Nigerian dictators. Fortunately, the rise of junk e-mail has fueled a vast anti-spam industry, with ISPs and software makers all competing to solve the Net's most intractable problem.
The ISPs are beating the anti-spam drum the loudest right now, because spam drives away new customers and clogs up their servers. Most providers combine several approaches. They subscribe to “RBLs, " or real-time blacklists, administered by anti-spam groups like the London-based Spamhaus.org, which maintains constantly updated databases of the worst transgressors and instructs subscribers to block their mail.
Six of the largest 10 ISPs, including MSN and Earthlink, also subscribe to the service of Brightmail. The San Francisco-based company has a team of researchers who constantly monitor dummy e-mail accounts and send out profiles of the latest Net scams, so that ISPs can filter them out before they reach your in-box. (Microsoft's Hotmail, one of the worst spam magnets on the Net, just signed up. ) The problem is that companies like Brightmail, fearing the possibility that their dragnet will block an authentic e-mail, are forced to be conservative. And spammers can easily configure their custom-designed software to respond with “spoilers, " spaces or bits of code placed within messages that fool the filters. Though Brightmail estimates it catches more than 90 percent of spam, spam watchdog groups think the number is closer to half.
That leaves ISPs trying to add anti-spam tools directly to their e-mail programs. Recently released AOL 8 can color-code your messages into three categories: known and unknown senders, and known bulk e-mailers. There's also a button that lets you report spam directly to AOL. MSN 8 does all this a little better, using machine intelligence designed in Microsoft's research lab to spot spam and send it to a junk folder.
Users looking for another level of protection can try software solutions, which attempt to block spam on your desktop. Software site Download.com lists more than 200 such programs, many free of charge. Most are “rules-based, " meaning they filter e-mail looking for certain words ("herbal Viagra") or programming patterns (excessive HTML graphics in the body of the message).
Anti spam software reviews
Among the best programs we've tested or heard about: IhateSpam ($29.95) works directly with Outlook or Outlook Express. Exploiting the power of peer-to-peer networks, it reports spam that the software missed to other users of the program. Mailwasher (free, but donation requested), another clever program, bounces back spam to the sender as “undeliverable, " trying to fool spammers into thinking they have a bum address. In our tests, it caught 90 percent of unwanted e-mail. Spam Assassin (also free) takes the same tack, and has a great name, but it can be a tad overaggressive, blacklisting the occasional authentic e-mail.
McAfee's Spamkiller ($40) gets a thumbs down because it overcharges and generates complaints to the spammer's e-mail account and ISP. Since spammers often hijack other people's accounts, this has the ironic effect of sending the complaint to an innocent user. Anti-spam spam?
Mary works in US for a media company, occasionally writing for the biggest Anti spam news portal, and drinking too much coffee.