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spam, that is.

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Hi everyone, this is Leo Notenboom with news, commentary and answers to some of the many questions I get at askleo.info.

If it seems like there's more spam in recent months than ever before, it's only because there is. More spam is being generated, and more spam is making it past spam filters than ever before.

Why the upswing? Well, I've heard two theories, both of which make sense.

First is an increase in the use of zombie networks or "botnets" to actually send spam. Zombie networks are simply machines owned by average users like you and me, which have been infected with malware that can be secretly instructed to send spam. Since the spam is sent from thousands, if not millions, of different machines spread all over the world, there's no reasonable way block it.

Second is the increased ability of spammers to fool the spam filters. Have you noticed spam that contains a paragraph or two of text that "almost" makes sense, but if you read carefully is total nonsense? Or a subject line that has just random words or phrases? Those are there specifically to fool the spam filters, and it looks like it's working.

So what's to be done?

Or more to the point, what can you do?

Well, step one is don't contribute to the problem: now I know you're tired of hearing me say it, but make sure you're running anti-spyware and anti-virus software that's regularly being updated so that it's not your machine that's sending spam. Or, as I know some listeners are yelling right now: consider Linux or a Mac.

Step two is ... don't contribute to the problem: spam only exists because it works. If you've ever responded to, or worse purchased from, a spammer, you are directly contributing to the rise in spam. If spam wasn't profitable there'd be no incentive to create it.

Step three, of course, is for us all to keep searching for that silver bullet antispam solution that doesn't exist yet.

Unfortunately the rise in spam has also caused many major ISPs to start getting too agressive and it's not at all uncommon for legitimate mail to get discarded as spam. Consumer grade anti-spam products do this as well. So far my combination of a server side spam filter to discard the obvious stuff - much like your ISP might provide, along with Outlook's built in junk mail filter is an "OK" solution - but I still have to be careful to look for false positives in the junk mail, and I still find myself deleting spam that neither tool caught.

To be honest, I'm not sure what the long term future holds, but in the short term the answer is easy: more spam.

I'd love to hear what you think. Visit ask leo dot info, and enter 10883 in the go to article number box. Leave me a comment, I love hearing from you.

This is a presentation of askleo.info, a free on-line technical question and answer service. Hundreds of questions and answers are online and ready to help solve your computer problems.

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Article C2830 - November 5, 2006 « »

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Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

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7 Comments
Peggy Champlin
November 5, 2006 7:33 PM

You might want to give SpamBayes a try: http://spambayes.sourceforge.net/. There's a plugin for Outlook. I get over 750 spam messages a day, so I need serious help!

This program learns from you what you consider spam and what you don't. It puts messages over a certain threshold in a Junk Email folder and messages it's not quite sure about in a Junk Suspects folder. There are Delete As Spam and Recover from Spam buttons installed on the SpamBayes toolbar, so it's really easy to train it on new types of messages.

I've been using it for almost 2 years now, and I get very little spam in my Inbox, some messages to check in my Junk Suspects box, and a ton of messages in my Junk Email box. I used to check the junk folder to make sure there weren't any false positives in there, but I never found any, so I don't look anymore. (I don't filter any messages at my webhost or ISP.)

As you can tell, I like it a lot. I can't even imagine not using it with all the garbage I get!

Mike
November 5, 2006 7:33 PM

I don't think we're ever going to find a solution to the spam problem if we continue our marriage to the SMTP protocol. In short SMTP is simply too trusting. It assumes all inbound messages are ok until there is reason to think otherwise. It needs to be tightened up.

I personally think we should switch to a token-based protocol. Let's say I want to send Leo a message. I type the email and send the message through my ISP's mail server. Instead of directly forwarding the message to Leo's email server, my server simply sends a "token," or a notification that there's a message waiting to be downloaded from my server. Leo decides he wants to read Mike's email and downloads it from my ISP's mail server. This would all be a behind-the-scenes process that would be as seamless as email reading is now.

This system would have some authentication built-in (Leo knows who the email comes from because he's downloading it from his server)..and it would be reversible (if Mike turns out to be a spammer, Mike's ISP pulls the plug on his mailbox AND all of the unread spam message he's sent out would also be deleted).

I'm keeping this short because I don't want to grandstand. But if you're interested, I've posted more ideas about why this would work in a blog post. http://occubola.com/blog/?p=43

Leo Notenboom
November 5, 2006 11:08 PM

I actually agree that SMTP is weak, and a large part of the problem, technically. Just about any solution that allows for absolute sender verification would go a long way to helping. Problem is getting all th e player to agree on any standard.

Daniel Ullman
November 6, 2006 2:37 PM

All of the junk email that makes it pass my junk email filter are gifs. I simply set a filter to look for Content-Type: image/gif; in the body. Those are directed to trash but remain unread. A sort by sender and off they go.

Thor Johnson
November 13, 2006 7:01 AM

There was something that was working... The Blue Frog. Unfortunately spamming/botnets are large-scale industries now, so BlueFrog found themselves posted as a target & the spammers were able to take out TypePad (!) and TuCows (!!!).

The project is slowly continuing as the okopippi project, but it isn't something that you can use *now*.

The war is big enough to take out large "unsuspecting" (Neither TypePad nor TuCows knew that they were going to be attacked... but both have *huge* pipes that are good enough for just about anything else) hosts. It would be interesting to see if they can take out *aware* hosts.

Russ Tully
November 13, 2006 4:25 PM

Spam is a real pain. My ISP does a pretty good job of filtering but some legit e-mails do get trashed in the process, perhaps a small price to pay for not having to slog through myriads of junk just to salvage one or two e-mails. I have found that changing my e-mail address is effective for a while anyway, although it is a royal pain!

David
November 14, 2006 1:59 PM

I agree. I`m also getting tons more of the foul stuff and I used to get virtually none. Whatever happened to legal moves to curb spam? Is there no deterrent these days? Perhaps a few draconian penalties might help. The swines who send this rubbish should have every appendage removed, very, very slowly!

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