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Spam's a Nuisance That Can Be Managed, Up to a Point

You can also try forwarding your spam to the authorities: Send a copy to the Federal Trade Commission at spam@uce.gov , or via the link at http://www.ftc.gov/spam . Forwarding another to the "abuse" address of the Internet provider that relayed the message ( abuse@aol.com , for example) is also smart. But to do that right, you'll need to use your mail program's "show full headers" option, which is often hidden.

You'd think that writing a program to delete spam would be easy, since even an Internet beginner can tell spam from real mail. But that hasn't happened-- yet another way in which the computer can't match the human brain.

Your Internet provider's spam filtering will usually sweep the worst offenders out of sight, but some adopt an excessively strict policy that wrongly tags innocent e-mails as spam. Last winter, for example, Verizon's filtering suddenly began flushing away many legitimate e-mails sent from parts of Europe and Asia.

If you use your own mail program instead of a Web interface such as Hotmail or Yahoo, you can also run your own spam filters. The best learn from your use, watching what mail you label as spam and adjusting their screening to match. Mozilla Thunderbird ( http://www.mozilla.org/ ) and Apple's Mail, both free, include this type of filter, as does the $50 edition of Qualcomm's Eudora ( http://www.eudora.com/ ).

Microsoft's Outlook 2003, by contrast, has a non-learning spam filter, while its free Outlook Express includes no spam block at all. You can add a learning filter to either program with various add-ons; some, such as POPFile ( http://popfile.sourceforge.net/ ) and SpamPal ( http://www.spampal.org/ ), are free but may require tricky configuration; others, such as SpamBully ( http://www.spambully.com/ ) cost money.

A more stringent defense, "challenge-response" filtering, requires would-be correspondents to pass a simple test online that a bulk mailer can't or won't bother to complete -- usually, visiting a Web page and typing in letters shown in an image. Some Internet providers -- notably, EarthLink -- and such add-on software as ChoiceMail ( http://www.digiportal.com/ ) and SpamArrest ( http://www.spamarrest.com/ ) offer it.

But although these systems wave through mail from people in your address book, other legitimate senders must perform extra work. Perhaps as a result, challenge-response has not been widely adopted.

All of these techniques can only treat spam. A cure will have to be economic: When no money can be made from spam, nobody will send it. Filters, lawsuits and fines can raise the costs of sending junk e-mail, but there's still money to be made by defrauding the gullible.

So until everybody wises up, we're probably stuck with spam. That's irritating, but at least junk e-mail won't crash your computer or erase your data. If spam were the only risk of going online, the Internet would be a better place, if still thoroughly annoying at times.

Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro atrob@twp.com.


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