Products take aim at helping can the spam

E-mail: A service that traps messages and software that filters them give users new options for cutting the flow of inbox junk.

July 25, 2002|By Hiawatha Bray | Hiawatha Bray,BOSTON GLOBE

The junk e-mails just keep pouring in, like a tsunami of digital sewage. It's bad news for those of us with weak stomachs, but a blessing for technology entrepreneurs with anti-spam products to sell.

Millions of solicitations for scams or smut pollute the Internet, giving anti-spam researchers plenty of material to work with. As a result, their products are getting better at distinguishing legitimate e-mails from porn and scam messages, and you can find spam filters that do a decent job.

One is Spamfree.net. For $5 a month, this Connecticut firm will search through your incoming e-mail messages and pluck out the ones that seem particularly cheesy. These are dumped in a "trap," where they reside for seven days, waiting for the user to visit the Spamfree.net site and review them.

Our testing found that Spamfree indeed nailed just about every spam message that came its way. Then again, it also snapped up a number of legitimate e-mails. But they're saved in the trap so that the user can forward the message to himself. He also can place the sender's address in a "whitelist," so that future messages from the same source won't be bothered.

The service allows you to add an extra layer of filtering by using the "Realtime Blackhole List," or RBL. This is a list of Internet addresses that are considered sources of spam by a group of Internet anti-spam activists. Some Internet service providers already use these lists to prevent their servers from being overwhelmed with junk mail.

But the RBL and other such spam-blocking lists are fairly controversial, and with good reason. The groups that maintain them have their own standards for what constitutes spam, and sometimes legitimate organizations have fallen afoul of those standards.

The best-known list operator, the Mail Abuse Prevention System, or MAPS, has been sued at least three times by companies alleging that they were unjustly added to its blacklist. In all three cases, MAPS eventually backed off.

If your ISP subscribes to some sort of RBL, lots of spam gets filtered before you even see it. But you may never see legitimate messages from senders who've been added to the list in error.

At least with Spamfree, all filtered mail can be reviewed. Also, since it's a Web-based service, it works with any computer operating system, there's no need to download and install software, and you can use it to filter e-mail on any computer in the world.

On the other hand, you currently have to log on to the company Web site and at least skim through your trapped e-mails to make sure you're not missing something important. But a Spamfree executive says they're about to add a feature that will e-mail the user with a list of trapped messages.

Spamfree should follow up that big improvement with enhancements to its system for whitelisting and forwarding the false positives - right now it's a little too cumbersome. Still, Spamfree has the makings of an effective anti-spam service at a relatively modest price.

Another product takes a far different approach. ChoiceMail from DigiPortal Software Inc. (www.digiportal.com) doesn't reside on a server out on the Internet. It's a piece of software that runs on your own computer. And it doesn't try to guess whether a piece of mail is spam or not - it lets you figure it out. But far from being a drawback, the ChoiceMail approach makes it a remarkably powerful and effective spam filter.

ChoiceMail is actually a kind of "proxy server" that sits between your e-mail software and your ISP. It regularly checks for new mail and downloads it to your computer.

When your best friend e-mails you, ChoiceMail automatically sends a reply to the sender, with a link to a Web page. Your friend clicks on the link and fills out a Web form asking you to accept his mail. The request appears as an instant message, flashing on your screen. It takes just one mouse click to add your pal's address to a whitelist. From then on, ChoiceMail will accept all incoming mail from this address. But since spammers will never fill out the reply form, their mail never gets through.

At a one-time price of $29.95, ChoiceMail is cheaper than Spamfree and easier to use. On the other hand, it only works with Windows and you'll need a copy of the software for each computer you use. There is a way to use ChoiceMail from a remote location, but only someone with a knowledge of computer networking principles could pull it off.

Congress is still toying with the idea of outlawing spam. But the present legislative plan would leave most of the stuff untouched. Besides, have you noticed how much now comes from places like Russia and Taiwan?

Barring some international anti-spam convention, we're left to our own devices. And some of those devices really work.

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