Killing Spam

Spam is an absolute scourge. I don’t understand why people do it, but then I’ve never really understood why people spray graffiti on walls, or write viruses either. I guess some people just get a kick out of being a bloody nuisance.

Of course, spam is a little different in that there is money involved. Big money apparently. If you send enough emails out about methods to enlarge your p3nis or buy p0rn and viag4r4 or whatever else spam tends to focus on, there are apparently enough stupid and gullible people in the world that someone, somewhere can make a comfortable living off their stupidity. It still amazes me that people respond to these messages in any way whatsoever, but apparently they do. The best way to deal with spam is to completely ignore it – don’t read it, don’t respond to it, don’t acknowledge it… just totally ignore it.

For the first time ever I feel like I’m winning the battle against spam, so I thought I’d share how I’ve managed to arrive at this point.

Firtsly, my Australian ISP (Optusnet) provides spam filters at their mail servers, and I have these enabled. I get a monthly report emailed to me from my ISP, and I’ve always been surprised at just how much mail I get flitered. For the past year or so since I turned the filters on, approximately half of the roughly 3000 messages I get each month have been identified by Optusnet as spam. The percentage floats around the 50% mark, although I’ve seen it as high as 57% spam. Interestingly the most recent report said that only 37% of my mail was spam so perhaps things are improving, or maybe spammers take a break over Christmas?

So, what of the remaining 1500 or so messages that arrive at my mailbox? The Optusnet filters are a good start, but they are certainly not foolproof. I would estimate that about 60% of the remaining messages I receive are still spam. I tried creating some basic filtering rules within Entourage to catch the worst stuff, and it certainly helps, but things still get through.

I get a lot of mail from email lists and these are fairly safe messages so I filter these immediately into folders for later reading.

The remaining mail has filters applied that do things like identifying any messages that were sent to the Optusnet domain but do not start with my username. This kills off most of the mass mailout stuff. I have a few other tricky filters that try to avoid the most obvious spammy stuff, but I was still getting more junk coming into my Inbox than I really wanted.

Then I discovered an amazing little tool called Spam Sieve. Spam Sieve is for the Mac OSX platform and uses a complex mix of safelists, whitelists, blacklists, Bayesian classification and intelligent heuristic scoring analysis to make some incredibly subtle and refined decisions about what comprises a spam message. It looks at word counts within the corpus of my messages and decides statistically what a spam message looks like.

The really neat thing about Spam Sieve is that it learns to make decisions based on MY actual mail flow and at the moment it’s running at 97.4% accuracy in identifying spam. ISP filters can only do so much because they are making blanket decisions about spam messages according to some fairly general rules that suit all users, but Spam Sieve is able to make constantly updated decisions about spam that is actually arriving in my mailbox, giving a far more nuanced view of what a spam message looks like.

On the few occasions when it makes a wrong decision, a simple keystroke lets me teach Spam Sieve which messages were actually spam and the software learns from its mistake, relegating the messages to the spam folder where they belong. Just to make sure the creature is dead, I also set up a mail rule in Entourage that automatically empties the Junk Mail folder every 5 minutes. Begone foul spam!

It’s a $30 purchase but the best $30 I’ve ever spent. I deal with a lot of mail, and I haven’t seen a single spam message in weeks. The bottom line is that email has actually become pleasant to use again.

I’ll also say a nice word for Microsoft Entourage for the Mac which , apart from being a little slow under Rosetta, is probably the best mail client I’ve ever used. I can hardly wait for the Universal version!

There are probably similar solutions for Windows users. Maybe someone could leave a comment if you know of anything, or if you have any good spam coping strategies that you would like to share.

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That's all well and good, but what do YOU think?