Teen hotties. Herbal Viagra. Urgent requests for assistance from obscure Nigerian royalty. Welcome to the land of spam, where, it seems, there are only three possibilities: pure porn, enhanced sexual performance (or bigger, um, body parts), and free money from Africa.
It's enough to drive you nuts, which, according to Ferris Research, is exactly what's happening: The average American white-collar worker spends a quarter of her time at work weeding through email, and, according to the Radicati Group, a whopping 32% of all email messages received are unsolicited junk email. In fact, 2.3 billion spam messages are sent every single day.
Nor is spam just the province of small-time, individual mass mailers: It has also, unfortunately, become the marketing tool of choice for brand-name companies. As a result, system administrators face the vexing problem of figuring out exactly what constitutes spam. (Last spring, AT&T Broadband's spam filters infamously blocked a mass emailing to its own subscribers about upcoming rate increases. Oops!)
But the good news is that the spam epidemic launched an explosion in legitimate products and services to help combat the problem. Below are three tools to help you reclaim your inbox.
SpamKiller is a product from familiar antivirus-software company McAfee ($39.95, www.mcafee.com). McAfee acquired SpamKiller from Norwegian company Novasoft and rereleased it in September with a few important upgrades: In addition to supporting Microsoft Exchange mail programs and POP3 mail programs, SpamKiller can also be used with Hotmail, Microsoft's free Web-mail service. The program runs separately from the user's email application but interacts with it to filter out mail from known spammers as well as messages containing spam keywords. Favorite features are buttons that will send fake "bounce" messages back to spammers to make them think that they've reached an inactive address and a complaint button that sends a message to the spammer's ISP (when that ISP is traceable).
In July, Sunbelt Software released iHateSpam ($29.95, www.sunbeltsoftware.com) as a custom solution for Outlook and Outlook Express. The software integrates fully with the user's email client, so users don't have to have a separate program running in addition to their email program. It features similar bounce and complaint buttons and uses the same keyword-filtering system as SpamKiller, sending the offending messages to a quarantine folder. But to solve the problem of emails you actually want to read being quarantined simply because they use common spam terms (like when your friends invite you over to watch Sarah Jessica Parker and the girls at a Sex and the City party), iHateSpam establishes a "Friends" list based on your contacts and your "Sent" folder that allows all messages from those individuals to reach your inbox undeterred.
Bonded Sender from IronPort Systems Inc. is a new product intended to help ISPs and server administrators make that difficult distinction between legitimate marketing mail and outright spam (www.bonded sender.com). It asks marketers to sign a contract guaranteeing that their mail isn't spam. For known companies, this amounts to a fee schedule for infractions of the contract, while unknown companies must post a bond up front. ISPs then use this list of "bonded senders" to allow mass messages through to their users (nonbonded senders are classified as spammers). Fees are assessed by customer complaint. If more than 25 users per million messages sent file a complaint saying that a company's mail is spam, that company loses its bond. "It's a statistical way not to have to be judge and jury about whether something is spam," says IronPort's Scott Weiss. "And it forces even the big guys to clean up their mailing lists if people complain."
Sidebar: How to Miss the Mystery Meat
A few extra steps to protect your inbox — and your sanity.
1. Create a "throwaway" email address. By now, most of us separate our work and personal email by maintaining two different email accounts. It's time to add address number three. Use this one for anything "public," such as signing up for email newsletters, posting comments on chat sites, or providing contacts for Web purchases.
2. Don't reply to spam — even to unsubscribe from a mailing list, unless, of course, the message comes from a recognized and trusted company. Replying or requesting removal from lists often notifies marketers that they've reached a "live" address and, in some cases, actually increases spam. If it comes from an established company, feel free to reply and unsubscribe from the mailing: Corporations are required by law to take you off of their lists if you ask.
3. Never buy anything from a spam message. If you do, you're asking for trouble. It leaves you wide open to credit-card fraud and ensures your addition to every spam list on the planet.
4. Don't be complacent: Report spam. Programs like SpamKiller and iHateSpam make this easy with complaint buttons. Look for future versions of Microsoft Outlook and other email clients to add similar features. If you don't use a program with this feature, you can still contribute to the cause: Go to http://spamcop.net and register for its free service. When you receive spam, copy the Internet headers of the message and send them to the folks at SpamCop.
A version of this article appeared in the January 2003 issue of Fast Company magazine.