Spammed if I do, Spammed if I don’t

Dealing with spam has become one of the least enjoyable aspects of being a web designer. Currently about 90% of the emails I receive are spam. Because many of the web sites I design have an email address that eventually finds its way to me I often get multiple copies of the same spam. Not only is the amount of spam that I receive a waste of my time and resources, but I also have to deal with unhappy clients who receive spam, or worse, those that can’t get their mail sent or received because someone else is blocking their good messages as if they were spam.

Intercepting Spam

There are three places that spam can get intercepted, and how well the first two work affects how much you’ll need to rely on the last defense, which is your computer.

The Sender’s ISP

The first line of defense is the spammer’s ISP. Spammers used to get caught because they would connect to their own ISP and start sending out thousands of emails. That was pretty easy to track and shut down. So spammers got smarter by trying several different approaches.

  • They search for mail servers on other ISPs that are open and send the mail through someone else’s server. Fortunately, most ISPs are smart enough to not allow relaying so this is becoming less common.
  • They search for web pages that use insecure forms processing and attack those to send spam. Older versions of the Perl script, FormMail were notorious for being hacked this way.
  • They craft trojan programs that make their way onto your Windows PC that allow them to take over some of the processing power to send their spam from your computer to your ISP. This is the most common way that spammers are currently sending spam. If you use Windows you need to make sure that you have taken steps to prevent viruses and trojan horses from infecting your computer. 

Still it would be best if ISPs could detect the spam as it’s being sent and just prevent it from going through the system clogging up everyone’s bandwidth. 

The Receiver’s ISP

The next step in the mail delivery process is the receiver’s ISP. ISPs try to determine if mail is spam on a continually evolving set of characteristics. There are also options on what they do with the mail they suspect is spam. They can refuse to accept it, they can accept it but archive it in a spam folder, they can mark it as suspected spam so that your PC can take over, or do nothing.

The problem for ISPs is that while they might catch a lot of spam and prevent it from reaching your mailbox, they can also catch good mail and prevent you from ever receiving it. That’s why these days it’s always best to follow up on emails that don’t seem to be answered. It’s entirely possible that your email never made it to the recipient.

For this reason I prefer the ISP to take a conservative approach to combating spam on the receiving end. I’d rather have ISPs prevent it from getting in the system, but once it’s there then unless they’re 100% sure it’s spam, they should let it through.

Your Mail Program

Whether you have a Mac, Windows, or Linux computer, your mail program has some built in tools to help solve your spam problem. Computer users need to learn how their email program works for setting up filters and take some responsibility for taking care of the spam that does get through. There are also add in programs that work with some email programs to make the filters work more effectively. For the Mac I can recommend SpamSieve. For Windows users, I would recommend that you switch to a Mac.

I set up filters that look at the subject line, the from line, the content, and other criteria. Then depending on the confidence that I have in the filter only trapping spam, I do one of three things.

If I absolutely know it is spam (for example, it’s coming from an address that has sent me spam before) then the filter deletes the message immediately.

The next level down I move the message to the trash folder and mark it as read. That way if I find a good message goes missing I can still search the trash folder and recover it.

The rest of the suspected messages go into a spam folder. I scan the contents of this folder at the beginning and end of each day. If I find any good messages in there they are moved to my inbox. Then I select the rest and delete them.

Further Spam Suggestions

If the spam is coming from anyone other than a legitimate business (and you can identify that it really came from them) DO NOT reply to the email asking them or telling them to stop sending you spam. You won’t get your name removed and you’re simply confirming that their spam reached you and was read. You will end up getting even more spam. Also it is highly likely that the FROM address was forged. So replying back to that address will just make an innocent victim suffer even more.

Add a filter to delete emails with your email address in the FROM address. Unless you’re in the habit of sending yourself emails. Spammers commonly forge the FROM address making it the same as the TO address.

If you have one or more email addresses that forward to another email address, be sure when tracing a spam problem what address is initially being attacked. You can view the full headers in your email program to see what address the message initially went to. To figure out how to do this, use your email program’s help menu, or Google “display (your email program here) full headers”.

Personally I wish the whole email system would adopt something similar to the phone system caller ID. Then you’d have the option to send email either anonymously or with your proven ID attached. It would also mean that you could choose to receive or block anonymous emails. But until something like that gets implemented, spam will be with us, and you need to learn how to control it on your own computer.