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COMBATING SPAM

Download Your Free ChoiceMail One Trial When your mailbox gets crammed full of junk mail so quickly that you haven't got time to find the real mail, its time to do something. My own solution is ChoiceMail. This inexpensive program has solved all my problems.

I've been on the internet for some time, and had a website for several years, so it seems that lots of people have got my email address. When my email address got onto one of those "millions of email addresses" CDs which get sold to and used by spammers, my junk mail increased markedly. Then when the email harvesting programs arrived, more junk mail than ever started filling my inbox.

Before I discuss some solutions to the problem, let's start with some definitions.

What is spam?

Usually spam is considered to be junk email, or unsolicited commercial email. The problem is we actually might want to receive some commercial email. Just as most people do not put a "No Junk Mail" sign on their letterbox because they might wish to occasionally flick through a catalogue, you might be interested in getting some mail if only to gather their address to add to your database. You might find it worthwhile to network in this way within your local area. In fact you might want to hear about the services of your neighbours, or send your own unsolicited commercial email. The problem is that some people bombard you with unwelcome, unpleasant or extremely annoying emails which fuels the anti-spam debate.

Slightly more than 70% of the emails I receive every day is filtered out as SPAM. This includes sex aids, health aids, finance and mortgage offers and dubious investment reports and get rich quick schemes. About 20% of my emails is junk mail - they are offers or adverts or newsletters because of some of the subscription lists I belong to. I don't always read them - in fact I rarely read them but they get filtered into appropriate folders in my inbox ready for the day when I'm in the mood to browse through them. That leaves the 10% of genuine email which I do read and handle normally.

So you can see that I treat "junk" mail differently from "spam". For example, I belong to a business association where I freely give out my email address. I therefore expect to receive mail from other members of the association yet I may have little use of their services. Mail from these people may not interest me but I'd be mad to turn down the opportunity of networking with a local business because I might want to be able to sell something to them. So it is a mistake to regard ALL mail from someone who is not in your contacts list as spam.

What is a Spammer?

Typically a spammer will be using a "system" which they have paid a considerable amount for. They'll have received a get quick rich scheme, possibly including a replicating website, a wad of email addresses or an email harvester program, programs to send out their emails and all the instructions. Yes, you guessed it - the people who are making the money are the ones with the programs to sell to the spammers!

The jewel in the crown is the program which sends out the emails in such a way as to make it difficult for spam blockers. The "from" and "reply-to" addresses as well as the subject line are randomly changed at regular and quite short intervals making it difficult to identify as spam. Frequently the sending addresses are ficticious and quite often so is the "to" address. I regularly receive 10 or 12 emails with the same content, variable subject lines and totally ficticious "to" addresses within my domain. Because my domain uses a "catchall" address, these ficticious emails are actually received. I have no doubt at all in my own mind that the person who is making money in this case is the one selling the addresses or the "per email service".

Filtering Spam

Rather than just deleting all the offensive emails you receive, you want to be able to set up a system where the spam you receive is filtered out of your inbox preferably without you having to do anything. There are several ways to automate this task.

Method 1: Most email programs allow you to set filters or rules to handle your mail. You set a rule so that mail from a particular address or mail with a particular subject line gets transferred directly to trash. This will work quite well for minor problems such as a persistent emailer that you cannot unsubscribe, or persistent subject lines. For example, you could set up a filter to dump any email with "free Euro", "free money" or "free investing report" in the subject line into the Trash. There is no point in trying to block the sender for these emails because that is a constantly changing variable (and almost certainly fake), but the subject for this particular email is one of those three and does not appear to change.

Method 2: Many ISPs have an optional spam blocker service such as Spam Arrester and Spam Assassin. However, these do not necessary suit everybody. Some of these programs read the headers and if it appears to be spam, the subject line is edited and [SPAM] is inserted in front of the first word. You are then encouraged to create a filter so that "[SPAM]" in the subject line will be transferred to a different folder or automatically deleted. The difficulty is that these programs seem to be unable to distinguish between real spam and subscribed to newsletters.

SpamCop uses a similar algorithm to detect and block spam, however it holds emails it considers to be spam and sends a complaint to the sending ISP, who then threatens to disconnect you from your service. If you try to trace back through SpamCop to try to discover who doesn't want to receive your emails any more, you are likely to hit blank walls. While this attitude may give great satisfaction to people who are sick of being bombarded with spam, it is very frustrating for senders of legitimate newsletters or senders of Christmas greetings to their own customers!!! (Speaking from experience here).

It is becoming a regular complaint of people sending out their newsletters that many just do not get through because the spam filters used by ISPs are dumping all bulk mailings including some legitimate email messages.

Method 3:
Install your own spam blocker. I use and recommend ChoiceMail. Here's why:

ChoiceMail sits between the ISP and my mail client. It checks all mail as it is received against my whitelist, my blacklist, and filter list. Any emails on my whitelist are automatically passed through to my email program. Emails on my blacklist are automatically deleted. My filters include the ability to search through the content of the email and if it finds "You are receiving this email because you subscribed to SitePro News" for example, then it passes it through to the SitePro folder in my email program. Any emails which don't fit into any category are held in a pending area for 4 days. A reply is sent to pending emails asking the sender to confirm that they want to contact me (they fill in a permission form). In most cases spammers never see that email because they didn't use their real address, so those emails just get deleted after a few days. I can check to see what is sitting in my pending box at any time; I can preview it without transferring it; I can accept any mail I notice that I do want to receive; or I can block any sender, or I can wait for the sender to confirm that they are "real" by clicking on a link in my reply email.

ChoiceMail has saved me hours of time and frustration. I can't speak highly enough of it. Please go ahead and have a trial run. You can download the program for 14 days free trial. It's worth much more than A$70 (US$39.95) just in the time you save.

If you need help in setting it up, let me know. If you'd rather not pay US$ then contact me directly and I'll invoice you in Australian dollars (inc GST).

For more information, click here: ChoiceMail One Product Information

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Protecting your website

Email Harvesters or spam bots search through all the pages in the internet to look for email addresses to collect, put in a database, and sell over and over again to spammers. These bots work in much the same way as the search bots used by search engines. If you set up a mailto link on your website, the email harvesters will find it and collect it within hours of your site being uploaded.

You want to make it easy for your customers to contact you. So you want to have a clickable link or a feedback form for them. But you do not want your email address to be located in the code of your page. In the past, some people recommended things like putting spaces in the address, using ASCII codes or using graphics to replace the text. The first two options just don't work any more and the last is just simply NOT user friendly. You have to make it easy for your customers to reach you. Asking them to re-type your email address will turn them off.

So we are left with 3 more options:

  1. Encryption. If you do a search, you'll find dozens of sites which will help you encrypt your email address. It will look like a mess of numbers and symbols in the code but will show up properly for human eyes. Look for encryption which is complex, and variable, or that only encrypts some of the letters, otherwise the more clever spam bots will still be able to steal your email address.
  2. Javascript. Once again there are loads of readily available scripts around. Basically, you are going to split up your email address into variables and then use a document.write command to stitch the variables together again. You can call the variables anything you like which makes it much harder for the spam bots to decifer. Once again this method keeps your email clickable and will fool most spam bots.
  3. Form. Using a feedback form is the obvious protection but only if you use a method which puts your address into a separate file. Matt Wright's formmail and similar scripts use a "hidden" field with recipient email address. This is only hidden from your human-eyed reader, not from any program scanning your code. So first, you MUST use a form which puts your mail server and your email address into a configuration file or into the form script, not on the web page itself. Secondly, we need to protect the form from another type of spam bot which searches for forms and fills in predictable fields like "name" and "email", fills these fields with fake data and then submits a spam email to you. There are numerous ways to foil these bots such as using 2 pages or using field names inside the code which don't exist on the form or using Captcha. This latter method asks users to fill in a field with the letters and/or numbers displayed in a graphic or jumbled format. The programs attempting to fill in a form via the code will not discover the data to complete this field and the submission will fail.

A simple form with all the elements of protection mentioned above can be used to replace the mailto link. It will popup into a small window and provide the basic fields for your customer to send you a quick message. Have a look at My Contact Station on the Products page.