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Published: Saturday, 8/3/2002

How can we block ‘spam' from e-mail?

Unwanted commercial e-mail - “junk” mail or “spam” - has changed from a curiosity to a major frustration that wastes time, money, and productivity for almost everyone who uses electronic mail.

Remember a few years ago, when spam was as rare in your e-mail inbox as its namesake - that much-lampooned canned meat - is on the dinner table?

People joked and gossiped about that occasional unsolicited offer for X-rated material, get-rich-quick schemes, or “free” gifts that mysteriously appeared in their e-mail.

Today spam often accounts for a big percentage of new mail. For many computer users, it has become almost a plague. Estimates suggest that more than 2 billion spam messages are now sent each day. The number will exceed 2.3 billion by the end of 2002.

Spam takes time to download, especially on slow dialup Internet connections. Every e-mail user eventually will pay for that extra time online, when Internet Service Providers assess operating costs and adjust their rates.

Readers complain about checking e-mail with expensive long-distance connections in hotels, for instance, and waiting while dozens of junk messages trickle in. Some have been in the same fix when checking e-mail from overseas on connections that cost several dollars per minute.

Spam is also an unpleasant and often-offensive intrusion that may involve offers of pornographic, racist, and other inappropriate material. Those junk e-mail offers go to kids, not just adults.

The people who send spam have grown more sophisticated, as well. They often use fake e-mail headers, disguised identities, and cleverly worded “subject” content that tricks people into opening spam messages.

Some states, including Ohio, are moving ahead with laws to control spam and new federal measures also are on the horizon. Time will tell whether they are effective. A lot of computer users would be satisfied with something simple, like a foolproof method of getting your address permanently removed from junk mail lists.

Many spams already offer a link for people who want to be removed from the company's e-mail list. Getting a response after clicking on the link, however, often takes so much time that people give up in frustration. Stick with it and request removal, and it may not work, or you're right back on the same list within a few days.

Would you pay about $40 to stop spam? If so, consider buying “anti-spam” or “spam-killer” software. Major anti-virus software companies like McAfee (www.mcafee.com) and Norton (www.norton.com) are good sources. To find other manufacturers, search for those terms on the Internet.

Anti-spam software usually “filters” the subject lines and text of incoming e-mail for spam's telltale electronic scent. That includes phrases such as “FREE GIFT,” “Get Out of Debt,” and pornography references like “XXX.”

These programs also block the addresses of companies and individuals recognized as spammers. The best programs include an automatic update feature that adds filters to screen out new spam material that constantly appears on the Internet.

In addition, consumers can configure the software to filter out specific e-mail content. But the software can make a mistake and kill legitimate e-mail. That's why spam-killers usually send suspect messages to a special e-mail folder that can be checked for legitimate messages.

Before buying any anti-spam software, make sure that it works with your own e-mail program. Check the product box, or online literature. All the programs work with Outlook and Eudora, for instance.

Anti-spam software may not work directly with AOL e-mail accounts or the free online e-mail accounts available at sites like Hotmail (www.hotmail.com).



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