Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam

Put your "Make Money Fast" where your mouth is, Microsoft!

Auntie was skimming through her Inbox the other day, idly deleting offers to enlarge various parts of her anatomy, lower her mortgage rate and split ill-gotten Nigerian gains, when Fabio looked up from his own browser session on the far side of the sunroom. He called my attention to a new essay from Microsoft entitled, “Spiking The Spammers” (http://www.microsoft.com/ issues/essays/2003/02-12spam.asp). Even though it’s going on five years, many people don’t know about the “Microsoft on the Issues” series in which the omniscient editorial voice of Redmond helps us sort out society’s problems through the proper use of software.

In this particular installment, the anonymous writer offers the apparent official Microsoft line on unsolicited commercial e-mail: Use filtering at the ISP level and at the client (Hotmail and MSN are cited as sterling examples of this plan) and enforce the current laws against fraudulent spam. Oh, and “new, strong laws are needed. At a minimum, senders shouldn’t be allowed to misrepresent their identity, falsify the subject of a message, or use automated means to gather e-mail addresses without the owners’ consent.”

For his URL-mining, Fabio was rewarded with the sight of this ex-rodeo star (thought you knew all my history, did you?) spitting cornflakes and milk across the room. After I finished ranting and raving, he went to fetch the mop, casually suggesting that it appeared I’d just come up with another column topic. You know, I think he’s right.

Here’s my advice to the Mothership: Don’t break your arms patting yourselves on the back, boys. No matter how good the filtering is in Hotmail and MSN (and I’ve heard conflicting reports on that score), the spam protection in your flagship e-mail client—Outlook—stinks.

For those who haven’t tried it, Outlook 2002 lets you turn on spam filtering by selecting Tools | Organize, and you can tell it to assign junk and “adult content” messages their own color or move them to their own folder. Your humble correspondent has tried this, as have many of her friends. The verdict? It doesn’t work for beans. Outlook 2002 uses a simple list of blocked words to identify “bad messages.” The list isn’t long enough to catch everything, yet it still manages to grab legitimate messages by mistake. Although you can fine-tune it by writing your own rules or by using sender whitelists or blacklists, Outlook 2002’s spam-fighting strategy is anemic and outdated.

That’s not to say that there isn’t a good way for Outlook users to avoid spam. There are plenty of third-party products that work with Outlook or Exchange and do a superior job of filtering spam. These products use more modern approaches such as Bayesian filtering, real-time blackhole lists, regular-expression filtering and multi-dimensional weighting. There’s no magic here, just some development time. So why hasn’t Microsoft invested that kind of time in Outlook?

But, wait, I hear you say: There’s a new version of Outlook coming out. Surely things will be better then. Microsoft can’t still fail to take spam seriously in 2003, can it? Well, Auntie doesn’t know for sure but the “gosh-wow” demonstrations of Outlook 11 have, so far, concentrated on a new display layout that makes messages look more like sheets of paper. (Great. Now I’ll see the spammers’ letterheads in the proper proportions.) Perhaps there’s a new and wonderful spam filter coming, but if so, we haven’t seen it.

I fear the answer is that Microsoft doesn’t take spam seriously because it’s not a serious problem in the Redmond realm. Presumably, the company has its own high-end filters so, in that little universe, spam is a minor nuisance.

I just hope Microsoft gets a clue and cleans up the mess soon. Oh, and while you’re at it, Microsoft—could you send someone over to help Fabio clean up this mess you made me make?

How much of your day do you spend on spam? Got the perfect solution for the poor, beleaguered Outlook user? Let me know at auntie@mcpmag.com and get the chance to win an MCP Magazine hat. The best comments will be published in a future online column.

About the Author

Em C. Pea, MCP, is a technology consultant, writer and now budding nanotechnologist who you can expect to turn up somewhere writing about technology once again.

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Reader Comments:

Tue, Jun 17, 2003 Anonymous Anonymous

Anonymous

Fri, Jun 6, 2003 Anonymous KC US

I think Microsoft allows spam in Hotmail so you need to subscribe to MSN services. I have used Hotmail for 4 years now and never get spammed until Yahoot decided to charge for POP3 retrieval and Microsoft decided to charge for mailbox storage increase. That was just before they announce MSN 8.0. After this I decided to quit using Hotmail because of the amount of spamming I started receiving.

Mon, May 26, 2003 Robert Sweden

I also use spamcop for all that trash I receive in my inbox, and I would like to se some rules on how e-mail is sent. To be able to send mail to my server the senders ip adress must match its DNS name and it has to be sent from a server with a MX record etc. Simple rules would make it harder for trash to get through or am I wrong ?

Thu, May 22, 2003 Anonymous Anonymous

I use no filtering on any email acount of mine. I recieve very little spam (~ 2 emails per week) in my personal or business email accounts.

I also have 2 Hotmail accounts that I use on the web. I do receive more spam in these accounts, but by far the largest source of unsolicited email is MSN telling me how to use their features, like spam filtering! Too bad they don't let me block them.

Thu, May 22, 2003 Anonymous Pasadena, CA

Thx for your timely and on target article. I read the Microsoft article you referred to and it sounds like a lot of platitudes to me. It's time for this issue to be taken more seroiusly, you can't just leave it to the individual to fight it. I use Spam Cop to determine who to complain to, I've had pretty good success with it.

Thu, May 22, 2003 Hondo Anonymous

Uncle Vic, your advice is exactly what I have been looking for. I hope Em C Pea can find out more details about what you are doing and pass it on. Can anyone give me help in finding that "filter based upon junk mailer SMTP addresses that gets 90% of the junk out of my sight"?

Thu, May 22, 2003 Judy Northern Michigan

I know you talked about the word lists not being effective, but I read the editorial from my trash bin. Spam Assassin picked up the phrases "Nigerian" "mortgage" and "enlarge." Add "Click Below" and the fact that you bounce the newsletter through a service and SA makes a good judgement call.

Wed, May 21, 2003 Jose Lopez Dallas

Unfortunately Microsoft hasn't caught up with this Spam issue. If you need a Mail Server with robust INTEGRATED ANTI-SPAM TOOLS you have got to take a look at Alt-N's www.altn.com MDaemon Mail Server. Version 6.8 is in it's pre-release stages and it is fully loaded with awesome features. Regards!!!

Wed, May 21, 2003 Lloyd Auckland - New Zealand

RE my previous post.
Sorry that should say www.mailwasher.net

Wed, May 21, 2003 MCSE Mike Cincinnati

Hammered the nail with one hit! Microsoft needs to incorporate SPAM control in with their new security initiatives. SPAM is causing people to loath email due to the time it takes to get to legitimate messages. Microsoft should use their "we'll assimilate you" tactics against spammers. If they want to innovate and add new features…start with SPAM control.

Wed, May 21, 2003 Anonymous Anonymous

I am by no means a Microsoft proponent, however, I feel that article is completely unfair. Microsoft's e-mail client does what it's supposed to, sends and receives mail. Is it their fault we get spam (hotmail accounts being the exception)? Is it Redmond's responsibility to police the world and prevent the mischievous? Microsoft had a great product on it's hands (the Office 2k feature set and integration) which has been seriously hindered or altogether rendered useless because we've forced them to "improve" upon security, instead of make a good product. Leave spam and virus control to third parties, who do it best!

Wed, May 21, 2003 Uncle Vic Southern California

I have found Outlook's Rules Wizard to be quite effective (I use both 2000 and XP). The combination of keyword searches in the subject header plus another filter based upon junk mailer SMTP address gets 90% of the junk out of my sight immediately. What is left over is easy enough to deal with.

Wed, May 7, 2003 Anonymous Anonymous

I am forwarding spam messages to spamcop.com. There are plethora of new spamming techniques that are not caught by hotmail spam protection.

Mon, Apr 28, 2003 Anonymous Anonymous

Anonymous

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