Any doubts I had that junk e-mail was becoming an overwhelming problem were erased during my recent vacation. I set up a bunch of mail filters to minimize the number of messages I would have to deal with over slow dial-up connections during my travels to Germany, Austria, Hungary, and the Czech Republic. Then I got a stream of e-mail ads asking me to buy a product called iHateSpam, which promised to solve the problem for $19.95. I felt like I was being spammed about how to stop spam. An embarrassed Alex Eckelberry, president of iHateSpam publisher Sunbelt Software, blamed this spurt of anti-spam spam on an overly enthusiastic distributor. The messages stopped after I complained to Sunbelt.
Given the unfortunate introduction, I was surprised to discover that iHateSpam is quite a good product. Spending $19.95 will no more eliminate junk e-mail than buying a penny stock based on an e-mail tip will make you rich. Still, anti-spam software can reduce the amount of junk mail you receive. The programs have limitations, and, for best results, all require tedious fine-tuning.
In choosing from the array of products out there, I set several criteria I thought would be the most appropriate for business-oriented e-mail users. First, I rejected any product that makes you use a special e-mail address or something other than your standard e-mail program. And systems that require specific authorization of each sender are effective but too cumbersome for most business use.
A major attraction of iHateSpam (www.sunbelt-software.com) is that it works with both Microsoft Outlook or Outlook Express and any sort of Internet or corporate mail account except AOL (AOL ). (Because of the closed design of its mail system, AOL customers will have to make do with the service's own ineffective spam filters.)
I tried the more powerful Outlook version of iHateSpam. It looks at each incoming message for the address of known spammers, giveaway words or phrases, and other indicators of spam, and moves suspect mail to a "quarantine" folder. You have to look through the quarantined messages for any real messages, which are transferred to your inbox with a click. And you have to mark as spam any junk that makes it to your inbox. The program learns as you do this, so it gets better at spotting spam.
A $5-a-month service called spamfree.net (www.spamfree.net) gave similar results. Unlike iHateSpam, which cleans out the junk once it has arrived, spamfree traps the messages before they reach your system. But spamfree only works with Outlook Express and only with standard Internet mail accounts.
SpamWeasel, a free download for personal use from MailGate (www.mailgate.com) is a serious hands-on tool that can do a fine job of blocking unwanted mail--if you have the patience and skill to use it. SpamWeasel presents you with a long list of rules for determining what is spam, then you have to pick and choose from among them. There's no explanation of the rules, and the meaning of many--such as "Check From: against valid `Root domains"'--is anything but self-evident. The program reports obsessively on what it has done, generating a sort of internal spam of log messages. Still, SpamWeasel gives fine-grained control.
Cloudmark (test version downloadable free from www.cloudmark.com) is an add-on to Microsoft Outlook and works with corporate Microsoft Exchange accounts. It is based on a cooperative approach in which users' designations of messages as spam are used to improve the filtering. But it seems to be a slow learner: It failed to move many of the most obvious junk messages, such as pitches from notorious spammers, to the spam folder it set up, yet it tagged some legitimate messages as junk. It also may require modification of a corporate firewall to communicate with the Cloudmark servers.
I still think that trapping spam on receipt is a poor approach because moving all that junk wastes storage space and network bandwidth. But in the absence of a concerted war on spam by the info-tech industry and a little help from government--neither of which is forthcoming--fighting spam remains a do-it-yourself project. While these products are far from perfect, they can help and are well worth trying.