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Computer Tips: Tools for Stopping Spam

(This article was originally written for the member-only NABE News, the newsletter of the National Association for Business Economics)

Spam, which should more accurately be called unsolicited commercial email, seems destined to kill off email as a viable communications tool. That’s not news to most of you -- you probably spend too much time each day cleaning out your in-box. Here are some links looking at the world of spam, plus some tools to use against it.

Spam Wars

“Spam Wars” is the name of a series of articles on the MSNBC website’s technology page. The overview article says that 14 billion pieces of spam are sent each day, and that there are about 200 big-time spammers that account for about 90 percent of the traffic.

Did you ever wonder if spam is economically efficient? Is the 14 billion pieces a day the level where marginal revenue equals marginal cost? That would be difficult to say, although in “Who Profits from Spam?” the MSNBC series looks at where the revenues might come from. There are lots of intermediaries and insulation, but ultimately some fairly big names are involved.

While MSNBC looks at some of the bigger fish, the Cleveland Plain Dealer looked at one local spammer who was caught, in the story “Microsoft Turns up the Heat on Spam.” If the story disappears from the main site, it is also summarized here in the 7/28 Cleve-blog entry.

Fighting Back

As that last story shows, some of the big technology companies are fighting back against the spammers. The success of the “Do Not Call” registry was surely noticed by politicians, so some sort of legislation may be in the works. Many ISPs are also taking action, finding it is cheaper to fight spam than it is to buy more mail servers. There are also some vigilante groups out searching for the spammers and trying to stop them. There are some tools available to you, too, to help protect your in-box.

The September 2002 edition of Windows on the Web showed how the Mozilla browser can be configured to block pop-up ads. The latest version of Mozilla, 1.4, has added some working anti-spam controls, which they refer to as junk mail controls. These controls use Bayesian filtering techniques to watch the mail you classify as junk and learn from your choices. I’ve been using this version for almost a month now, and it is making a dent in the huge pile of junk in my in-box. It’s now at the point where it successfully recognizes about three quarters of the spam, which it diverts to a special e-mail folder. What is even better is that so far there have only been five “false positives,” mail marked as junk that really wasn’t. Four of those were newsletters I subscribe to and only one was from a person. I’ve done a larger review of the anti-spam controls here. If you are interested, Mozilla is available as a free 12 MB download.

Another tool that you may want to consider is SpamAssassin, which can be used with other email programs, or can be configured at the network level. It is more complex than the Mozilla tool.

Spam Fans

Of course, there really are some people who like spam. Don’t forget that SPAM® is a registered trademark of the Hormel Company. If you go to www.spam.com, you can find out all about the SPAM Fan Club, the SPAM Museum, the SPAMMobile, and the SPAM Gift Catalog. You can do your holiday shopping early! For those of you who can’t get enough, you can even listen to the Monty Python Spam skit in streaming audio here.

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