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Ban Spam From Your E-mail

Hormel's SPAM luncheon meat may be high in saturated fat, but it's that other type of spam that's clogging the Internet's arteries.

By some estimates, unsolicited e-mail accounts for billions of dollars of lost time, not to mention its impact on all those servers, routers and computers that it must pass through.

I speak from bitter experience. Over the last couple of years, the amount of spam reaching my inbox became overwhelming -- hundreds of junk messages a day. Until a couple of months ago, I would have to brace myself every time I checked my mail. I can't tell you how many times I'd get chided by a friend, colleague or relative for not answering their e-mail only to retort that I never saw it because it got lost among all the junk mail.

I'm pleased to report that e-mail is once again fun and productive for me. I've conquered spam -- at least for the time being -- but it required a number of steps, including changing my e-mail address and installing spam filters.

Admittedly, I'm a bit of a special case. As a journalist and Web site operator, my old e-mail address was everywhere -- printed in newspapers and on hundreds of Web sites, including every page of my Web site.
As it turns out, allowing your e-mail address to be posted on a Web site turns you into a mega-spam magnet. That's because some unscrupulous spammers employ software that "harvests" e-mail addresses by crawling the Web looking for code on Web sites that allow visitors to send e-mail to the Web operator simply by clicking on a link. Because of this, my e-mail address was on every spam list on the planet. Spam filters were able to keep most of it from reaching my inbox, but the filters work as the mail comes in, so I still had to download it, which can take an enormous amount of time, especially when I'm bogged down with a slow modem.

My Web site (www.pcanswer.com) still has an "e-mail Larry" icon at the bottom of each page, but when you click on it, you are taken to a Web page where my address is displayed as a graphic instead of a "mailto" link or even as text. Spam harvesting software can't read that graphic, so the only way for people to add my new address to their spam list is to type it in.

Spammers are too lazy for that and far too cheap to pay someone else to do it. They're looking for the extremely easy solution. The whole spam industry is predicated on the fact that it costs virtually nothing for the sender.

Another trick to help prevent becoming a target is to avoid giving out your address in public places or to untrustworthy Web sites that don't post -- and follow -- a strict privacy policy. If you must provide an address in such places, create a special address just for that purpose using a free Web-based service like Yahoo Mail (http://mail.yahoo.com/) or Hotmail.com. That way, all your spam goes to that account instead of the one you rely on for people you really want to hear from.

There are some solutions. Outlook users, for example, can download a free "plug-in" at www.cloudmark.com. The software, called SpamNet is extremely efficient at blocking unwanted e-mail but also is good about letting in legitimate mail. Currently, it only works with Microsoft Outlook -- not Outlook Express, Eudora, Netscape, AOL, Web Mail or any other mail client. The company is working on a version for Outlook Express.

The company claims that it can block 75 percent of spam, but my experience is a lot better than that. Instead of hundreds of junk messages a day, I now get only one or two. It doesn't prevent spam from arriving at your PC, but it isolates it by placing it in a special spam folder that it creates within Outlook. I check the contents of that folder daily for "false positives," legitimate mail that SpamNet has classified as spam. It happens, but not very often.

The system was designed by a Napster co-founder who is using Napster-like "peer to peer" technology to identify junk mail. SpamNet places a "block" and "unblock" icon on your Outlook toolbar. When a user finds junk mail in his or her inbox and presses the "block" icon, the software not only moves the message to the spam folder but sends a message to Cloudmark's server, identifying the message as potential spam so it can be considered for inclusion in the company's spam database.

The service doesn't just block specific senders -- that doesn't work because they keep changing their identities -- but identifies spam based on content and other more reliable criteria.

If you don't use Outlook but do use another PC-based e-mail program, you can get relief by using SpamKiller, which can be downloaded from McAfee.com for $39.95, or Spam Buster ($19.95 or free if you're willing to put up with advertising) from ContactPlus.com. These programs are reasonably good, but neither of them is as seamless as SpamNet and both are prone to false positives.


A syndicated technology columnist for nearly two decades, Larry Magid serves as on air Technology Analyst for CBS Radio News. His technology reports can be heard several times a week on the CBS Radio Network. Magid is the author of several books including "The Little PC Book."

Got a PC question? Visit www.PCAnswer.com.

By Larry Magid
Los Angeles Times Syndicate

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