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Spam, Lovely Spam?

Unwanted email is beyond a joke

Dealing with unwanted email

"Egg and spam; egg bacon and spam; egg bacon sausage and spam; spam bacon sausage and spam..." Looking back on this Monty Python Sketch, a menu where every choice is buried in spam is a perfect metaphor for unsolicited email. No wonder the label stuck.

Today, unwanted email is getting beyond a joke. Nearly half of all the emails sent over the internet are unwanted bulk emails. Transmitting all this garbage has a real cost in bandwidth, and slows delivery of business emails. Since a typical office worker spends about an hour a day dealing with email, deleting it also has a measurable impact on productivity. Worse, about ten percent of it contains offensive sexual material, with possible legal implications in a business environment, and some of it carries viruses.

The reason there is so much of it is simple economics. It costs very little to send. A would-be spammer needs very little to get started: a PC, an internet connection, some software and a CD, costing around �100, with millions of email addresses. Sending twenty million bulk emails costs the same as sending one and only takes a couple of hours. Of course, most people ignore junk emails but it can pay if only a fraction of one percent respond. For instance, last year the police reported that 150 people in the UK fell for email cons promising small fortunes to the gullible in return for a small, up-front payment. If only 50 people in a million actually buy something, sending out 70m emails will bring in 3,500 new customers.

The majority of unsolicited email comes from a few hundred arch-spammers (you can probably think of a better word for them, but it would be unprintable). Stopping them is a cat and mouse game. Sadly, it looks like spam is here to stay.

So what can you do about it? There are some rules of the road which can reduce your personal exposure:

Don't open unwanted emails. They might contain small programs that confirm to the sender that you are a valid recipient.

For the same reason, do not reply to them or click on any unsubscribe buttons. Of course, things you deliberately subscribed to, like opt-in e-newsletters, can be safely unsubscribed.

Don't pay for a mailing list removal service or join opt out lists. Even if they are legitimate they are unlikely to be effective against serial offenders and they are more likely to be fronts for conmen or spammers themselves.

Don't enter your everyday email address on an unknown or dubious website. Use a throwaway address from a free online provider.

Don't publish your email address on a website, newsgroups or bulletin boards. Hackers scan millions of web pages trying to harvest legitimate email addresses.

As matter of good housekeeping, you should have effective anti-virus software, an internet firewall and the latest versions of your software. These can stop the bad guys exploiting your computer.

These steps are necessary but not sufficient. You also need software to filter out unwanted email. These programs work by scanning incoming messages and blocking unwanted ones. There are three main filtering techniques: searching for telltale keywords, using a collaborative database so that if one user identifies a given email as unwanted all other users of the database are protected and finally using algorithmic methods such as Bayesian probability and heuristic rules.

Some programs run on your business's email server catching spam as it comes into the organisation and before it reaches individual users. Suppliers include: Brightmail, SpamAssassin and MessageLabs. Other programs work on individual PCs and are ideal for personal use. They include MailFrontier Matador and Cloudmark SpamNet. Finally, Microsoft Outlook 2003 has its own very effective filter. None of them are perfect, but a good filter will cut down the volume of unwanted emails by over 90 percent - a huge improvement.

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