Filtering Junk E-Mail

The recent flood of junk e-mail from the Mydoom virus overwhelmed a lot of people's e-mail systems. Nearly two weeks after the outbreak, I'm still getting an inordinate amount of junk mail as a result of the virus. My anti-virus program prevents me from becoming infected or spreading it to other people, but the anti-spam filter built into my e-mail program does nothing to keep these messages from clogging my inbox.

Fortunately, with many e-mail programs, there are ways to filter out such messages as well as ways to highlight potentially important mail and even sort your inbox into folders, to help you better organize your messages.

Microsoft Outlook, Outlook Express, Eudora and the free e-mail programs that come with the Netscape and Mozilla browsers all support filtering, sorting and color coding e-mail. AOL Windows users can take advantage of these and other advanced features by downloading the free AOL Communicator at keyword "communicator."

The steps involved and granularity of the filtering depends on the e-mail program but most allow you to assign colors to mail based on who it's from or text contained in the subject or body. In addition you may be able to automatically sort important (or unimportant) mail into folders.

For example, a lot of the mail containing the virus has the subject line "hi," "test," or "delivery status." To avoid becoming overwhelmed by those messages, I've used Outlook's Rules function to automatically move message with these words in the subject line to a folder that I've called "suspicious." I check that folder just to be sure it doesn't filter out any important mail but, so far, it has trapped hundreds of copies of the virus and nothing important.

I also use filters to highlight important mail. I have configured Outlook so that mail from news organizations I work with is highlighted in red, so I don't miss those messages when I scan my incoming mail. Mail from my bill paying service, bank, credit card companies and investment brokers are all coded in green. I use blue to single out mail from friends and family. Any other mail I get, whether important or not, is in black. I still look at that mail – it may very well be from my readers, radio listeners, or other important people – but I make sure I don't miss the mail that's color coded. Outlook allows you to establish "rules" based on specific words in the subject, sender field or even the body of the message. Based on whether a message meets the criteria you establish, you can assign it a color, move it to a special folder or place a copy of it in a folder. You can even have Outlook play a special sound to alert you to the arrival of a message from a particular person or display the message in a special "alert window" so you can't possibly miss it.

How you configure these rules depends on what version of Outlook you use. With most versions you would select "Rules" or "Rules and Alerts" from the Tools menu. Some versions allow you to color code messages from individuals by clicking on a message from someone and then clicking on the organize icon on the toolbar.

Outlook 2003 has option that allows you to create a search folder for specific people. You start by using the search feature to find e-mail from that person and then select options followed by "save as search folder." From then on, all mail from that person (or organization) will be in a new search folder as well as your inbox. By the way, this method does not waste much disk space, because it just puts a pointer to the original message in the search folder, it doesn't make a copy of the actual message.

Outlook Express, the e-mail program that comes with Windows, has a less sophisticated filtering and color coding feature that nevertheless allows you to color code messages or assign them to folders. The good news is that the process is quite easy. Just select Message Rules from the tools menu, select mail, click on New and establish your criteria based on who the message is from, what the subject line contains or specific words in the text. Mail that meets that criteria can be moved or copied to a specified folder, deleted, forwarded to someone or highlighted with your choice of colors.

Eurdora, Mozilla, Netscape and other programs have similar filtering methods that are typically configured through the program's Tools menu.

By Larry Magid