Combatting spam

Thank you spam.

I recently made the jump from my beloved Forte Agent to Microsoft Outlook1 and SpamBayes to thwart the spam invasion.

My email habit took me from SLMR (Silly Little Mail Reader, is it still around?) from my DOS days to Forte Agent in 1995. For combined Usenet and email support, Agent is the best thing going. Combining Usenet and email in a single interface, it offers real threaded email support, Usenet binary recomposition, and a host of other features that made it my mainstay for over eight years. Life was good.

Over the years, I’ve used Usenet less from Agent and more from web interfaces and Google searches. These days, I don’t read Usenet very much, and use Agent as an email client.

Maybe it was coincidence, or I’ve been out of touch, but since hosting, this little spam issue has grown from a nuisance to a major hassle. Call me old school, but I’d rather receive all the email at the client and do my own processing. I keep my mail server configuration very simple. Anyway, in the past two and a half years, the proportion of spam to regular email has increased from insignificant to a third or half, depending on volume.

Searching the web found several ways to “skin this cat.” The basic choices were running anti-spam software on the server, running anti-spam on the client, using multiple email addresses, or changing the email address. Unfortunately, Agent (at the time) didn’t have multiple email address support; each installation of Agent only handled one email address. I wasn’t comfortable running antispam on my mail server. Anyone who has changed their email address knows what kind of pain that is, even with alias support. The only option remaining was to run antispam on the client.

Searching various review sites, as well as open source sites such as Sourceforge and Freshmeat, drew me to check out SpamBayes, an adaptive, learning, spam filter that runs on the email client machine. Two versions are offered: a POP3 proxy, and an Outlook plugin. The POP3 proxy sits between your email client and the mail server, analyzing and “marking” messages as spam as they’re received. The Outlook plugin integrates directly into Outlook and filters mail after it’s received. Beware: if your primary email account is web-mail based, such as Hotmail, Yahoo, or a web front end at your ISP, the anti-spam program running on your machine can’t filter the email. Your provider must perform spam filtering at the server.

As I was still using Agent at the time, I downloaded and tried the proxy version. Combined with some filtering rules in Agent, this cut down the spam count in my inbox. The downside is you must go to the SpamBayes web interface to “train” it if it classifies email by mistake. That is, if SpamBayes said a particular email message was spam or a spam suspect, you went into the web interface to tell it explicitly the particular email is real (ham) or spam.

About a year went by using the SpamBayes proxy and web interface, but things were going out of control. Almost weekly I could see the increase in spam, and I spent as much time in the SpamBayes web screen as in Agent setting up rules and filters for email. There had to be a better way!

I use Outlook at work (company policy) so I’m familiar with its quirks, limitations, and potential virus abuse. When Office 2003 came out and Outlook had smarter email settings and spam/junk mail options, I knew I needed to try it with the SpamBayes plugin for Outlook.

The SpamBayes Outlook plugin uses Outlook’s “Junk Email” folder and adds a “Junk Suspects” folder under the Inbox. After email is received, the plugin analyzes the mail and will move it to Junk Email if it’s spam, Junk Suspects if it isn’t definitively classified as spam, or leave it in the Inbox for normal Outlook rule processing. The plugin adds a toolbar to Outlook with the buttons “Delete as Spam” and “Recover from Spam”. If SpamBayes incorrectly classifies an email, you can explicitly train SpamBayes how to process the email by clicking on the appropriate button. All the email that SpamBayes processes is used for training; the more email you receive, the smarter SpamBayes becomes.

When I look in Junk Suspects, I’ll see typically less than five emails each day that SpamBayes couldn’t classify as spam. Just hit “Delete as Spam” and they’re gone! Every few days I’ll look in the Junk Email folder to ensure everything in there is spam, then delete the spam emails.

It’s a great system that I’ve been using for about a month now, and it’s made me switch to Outlook as my primary email client. Now if the SpamBayes team and the Agent team get together and duplicate the SpamBayes plugin for Agent, with the corresponding ease of use, I’ll eagerly switch back to Agent!

  1. This broken link was removed on 2018-11-12: ↩︎