NWA-PCUG Newsletter Article, March 2006
Anti-Spam Programs – Do They Really Work?
by Vinny La Bash,
Member of the Sarasota Personal Computer Users Group, Inc.
February 2006 issue of the Sarasota PC Monitor

vlabash(at)home.com (click to email author)

Among the most effective anti-spam programs are the ones that use some kind of approval based email management system. They work by constructing a “white list” of permitted email addresses, accepting mail from anyone on the list, and rejecting everything else. The program initially sniffs through your contact list, inbox, and other email folders, organizes the email addresses it finds, asks you if you want to add or change anything, and the list is complete.

From that moment on, any incoming email that is not on the list is considered to be spam, and is automatically exiled to a quarantine folder or wherever you decided it should go during installation. The programs do work as advertised, which is both their greatest strength and their greatest weakness. Here’s what you need to know before installing one of these puppies.

Scenario 1: A friend you have lost contact with over the years sends you an email. That friend’s email address is not on your white list. Unless you have a quarantine folder where unapproved email is sent without automatically deleting it, you will never see this email. You have to check your quarantine folder, at least occasionally, to see if there are any false positives residing in there with all the junk. How much time will this take? Who knows? None of the programs mention this in their promotional material or specification lists.

Scenario 2: You install a new program or device and run into difficulties. The troubleshooting guide sends you to an email address where you can get a solution to your problem. You remember to add the email address to your white list. You wait for a reply, and wait, and wait. What happened?

Your problem was given to a technical representative who has an email address different from the general support address. You don’t see the reply unless you check the quarantine email folder, assuming that in your efforts to rid yourself of all spam you did not specify that anything not on your white list be automatically deleted.

Scenario 3: You order something from an online merchant and before your order is shipped the merchant emails you to ask whether you want the white one or the black one. The query has been rerouted to the quarantine folder because the person trying to contact you has an email address that is not on your white list.

Scenario 4: Your spouse sets up a Yahoo! Email account for the sole purpose of sending you a surprise Valentine’s Day email. For no apparent reason you are getting the silent treatment. You ask, “What’s wrong”? Your spouse replies, “Nothing”.

Scenario 5: Your granddaughter just got an email address of her own. She sends you a message, and can’t understand why you won’t answer. She asks her parents “Why doesn’t grandpa love me anymore”?

We could go on, but you get the general idea. 99.99% of all real spam will be banished from your sight, but the very few legitimate emails identified as spam will very likely be the ones you most want or need to see. Some anti-spam programs have a “sender confirmation feature” that automatically sends a personalized notification to anyone whose message has been quarantined. Simply replying to the challenge causes the original message to be moved to your inbox, and allows their email address to be added to the white list. Legitimate senders can respond to these challenge messages, but suppose that for whatever reason they don’t. Does a seven year old grandchild really understand why she needs a grandparent’s permission to send an email?

What you end up with is a time-consuming process of back and forth emails. Why should every email first contact have to be sent twice? What a waste of time. This might be acceptable if your email volume is very low, but who are we kidding. Simply establishing an email account anywhere will get you a boatload of spam. ISP level filters are a joke. How many essays do you want to compose explaining why someone needs “permission” to send you an email? I don’t respond to challenge email. Why should anyone respond to mine?

You can check your quarantine folder regularly, but with the huge quantity of genuine spam generated and thrust upon us daily, it’s too easy to overlook a legitimate message. When you finally delete the spam, there is a good chance that among the junk a valuable note is lost forever.

After using one of these programs for several months, I decided that I would much rather delete spam manually, rather than run the risk of missing an important legitimate email. No computer program, no matter how expertly crafted or trained, can ultimately determine what emails I do or don’t want to read. Even after being married for 38 years, my wife still can’t read my mind. How do I expect a dumb computer to do it?

There is no restriction against any non-profit group using this article as long as it is kept in context with proper credit given the author. The Editorial Committee of the Association of Personal Computer User Groups (APCUG), an international organization of which this group is a member, brings this article to you.

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