Powerful Tools for Blocking Spam

Savannah graphic designer Clifton Henri depends on email for business and personal communication. But there's a problem. "I get more spam messages than I do actual email messages from friends and family," he told us. He says spam is not just a waste of time, but can be damaging. "I've deleted plenty of things because it looked unfamiliar, but it was important."

Our government recognizes the impact and wants to do something about it. There's legislation currently working its way through Congress that aims to get rid of the very worst kind of spam. But some experts say this is exactly the kind of spam that will get through anyway.

Computer training professional Nick Blosser, with Savannah's Premier Systems & Training, says laws won't do much to stop criminal spammers. "In the world of the internet, someone can have an identity one day, and another identity the next," he said. "They can move from one location to the next, they can move off shore with their accounts, so there really is no way to stop somebody."

Blosser feels that spam exists because there's enough demand for pharmaceuticals and mortgage help and whatnot, that somebody's buying. He feels the government's time would be better spent targeting things like child pornography rather than spam. "I would say that that's an ineffective law that shouldn't be pursued at taxpayer dollars," he said. "I think you're wasting the taxpayer funds and really not solving any problems."

There are options for the consumer, however, and we showed Henri one of the most effective. It's called a challenge-response spam filter, and it uses a simple test to prevent you from receiving any automated email. If an unknown sender sends an email your way, he gets an automated response--before you see the email--that challenges him to, say, reproduce a series of digits displayed in a graphic. Computers cannot pass such a test, but it's trivial for humans. Once the sender proves he's human, it's up to you to add him to list of accepted senders or reject him permanently.

Henri says he'd use it, especially for business. "Absolutely, it's very useful," he said. "And it's easy. If you know how to use the internet, you'll know how to use this."

Since it blocks every unsolicited email, it's an extreme solution, but a solution to a problem that for many is also extreme.

Henri acknowledges that some users might not know what do do with the challenge, which might prevent you from receiving email you actually want. "If I were to send you an email and get a response back that I have to do another step just to get in touch with you, that's a little burdensome. I might look at that as being junk mail in itself," he said. "If I knew what was going on, if I was educated about it, then oh, okay, let me fill this out so we can get the ball rolling."

However, the challenge-response systems we've checked out do allow you to put your friends, family, and business contacts in the "approved" list ahead of time, so they'll never get challenged.

To learn about a few of the systems available for around $40, follow the links above left.

Reported by: Charles Gray, cgray@wtoc.com