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- This Week's Free Computer Tip -

114 - Are You Losing Email from Friends?

The Problem
Emails from personal friends may be filtered out of your mail delivery without your even realizing it's happening. The use of email has boomed, in part because it has been fast, convenient, and reliable. Junk email has made email less convenient. Now, the reliability of email is threatened as well.

(To give you some choice about your reading time here, this email has some specific suggestions, followed by a section titled "Background". The Background section details why email filters don't work, and likely never will. If you already understand why email filters are a problem, just read the suggestions.)

Suggestion #1 - (for Outlook users only)
If you use Outlook and want to use the two filtering "rules" that come with it, don't. Instead, use the "adult content" rule only. Why? The words the adult rule filters on are less likely to cause you to lose valid emails, as compared with the words used by the junk mail rule. Don't be put off by the name of the rule. It doesn't matter what it's called. When emails arrive advertising second mortgages or trade schools or the like, just right click on them, select "Junk E-mail", then "Add to Adult Content Senders list". You will build a list of junk mail sources over time that will catch all but the newest spammers. Better yet, this list will be all of your choosing, and not someone else's.

Suggestion #2 -
Set up one of the free email accounts with someone like www.yahoo.com. When supplying your email address to web pages you are working with, use that address instead of your normal ISP address. Limit giving out your actual ISP address to friends and family. When you start getting too much junk mail on the free address, just drop it and set up another one.

Suggestion #3 -
If you've been attempting to "unsubscribe" from these nuisance sites, stop doing that. This isn't true in all cases but, you have no way to telling. When advertisers purchase email lists from vendors, many of the addresses are no longer active or valid. When you unsubscribe, they may take you off their list but they now know you are a valid address. Your name now becomes a bit more valuable when it's sold to the next spammer. (It's a cruel world these days) There's also no guarantee that they removed you from their list either! Ouch.

Suggestion #4 -
When you can't stand it anymore, start over by changing your email address. You may have to change ISP's to do that. I know that's a pain, but it does stop the junk for a while. Once you get the new address, just email all your personal contacts and let them know. Then, guard the new address as best you can.

Suggestion #5 -
The filters that are being heavily advertised now by AOL, MSN, AT&T and others, are usually optional. If the only choice they give you is to use it or not use it, I suggest that you don't use it. The filters will be too broad and it is just a matter of time until some friend will send you an email or a newsletter that disappears. Try using the filters or rules that your email program offers, if you have that choice. You can buy filtering software too. The idea is to maintain personal control over what comes to you.

Suggestion #6 -
ALWAYS use a virus checker to check both incoming and outgoing email. That's off the subject a bit, bit since we are talking about email . . .

Background -
"Spam" is Internet slang for "junk mail" and junk mail is defined as anything sent to you which you didn't ask for. It's advertising, and everyone knows that it has become a serious problem. The current situation is this: the longer you have had your same email address and the more you browse the Internet, the more junk email you receive.

The dot-com boom was all about companies searching for ways to make money over the Internet. Businesses have always needed a way to encourage you to buy from them, but their advertising was limited by cost. Whether it was building and maintaining a store or mailing out fancy four-color catalogs to customers, it was very expensive. For many kinds of businesses, the Internet offered a way to very inexpensively reach potential customers by the millions. It was no longer necessary to target a customer by geography. Even your interests became unimportant because the cost to include you in the list was virtually nothing. If you were breathing, and you were on the Internet, you were a potential customer. Worse, it didn't matter whether you liked what they were selling. They could now hide behind the anonymity of the Internet and angry customers or neighbors couldn't even find them, let alone get to them. Perfect for them. Not so hot for us.

So, you and a few thousand other consumers began complaining to the only people you could find to complain to, your Internet Service Providers, or the companies who wrote your email programs. Not wanting to appear unconcerned, they responded. Unfortunately their solutions are creating problems for us as well. The current "solution" is to write filtering programs to pick off the offending emails before they get to your mail box. The problem is, how do you design a filter that works accurately? This turns out to be a VERY complicated problem.

There are several ways to filter, none of which actually work. Here are three common strategies:

The first is to build a database of offending addresses, and filter anything coming from those addresses. This fails because all the spammer has to do is use a different address for tomorrow's mailing, and the filter never catches up.

The second method is to set a limit on the volume of email a single sender can send. This fails because the limit is arbitrary. If we set it at say, ten thousand pieces, it's a simple matter for a computer to have the email go out in bundles of nine-thousand nine-hundred ninety-nine at a time.

A third way is to filter based on content. You and I can look at an email that contains a pornographic photo and easily recognize it for what it is. Computer's can't do that. To a computer, a picture is just a mish-mash of colored dots. Computer's can't think (and never will be able to, but that's a whole other topic). It takes the power of a brain to look at all those dots and make them mean something. What computers are able to do to store a database of words that a human decided were offensive. The computer can then filter out any email containing one or more of those words, and delete it. Sounds simple enough, but not so fast. The classic example, documented frequently documented in newspaper articles, is the case of the word "breast". That word is included amongst offensive words in many filters. That means that a friend who emails you to say that she is being tested next week for breast cancer, will have that email discarded without your ever seeing it.

If you think that example is an isolated case, think again. Here's a real life example from my own experience. Microsoft Outlook contains a feature for processing incoming email. The feature is called "Rules". You can create your own, but you also have the choice of turning on either of two generalized rules which are provided by Outlook. One filters out "junk email" and the other filters out "adult content". That seemed like a good idea and for quite a while, I had them both turned on. After a time though, I realized that I wasn't receiving all my emails from friends. I traced the problem to the filter for "junk email". It turns out that one of the "words" they filter on is not a word, but a symbol - the dollar sign. You may have noticed in this email that I am spelling out numbers, just as I spelled out "dollar sign", instead of just typing the dollar-sign character. That was the specific reason why some of my emails from friends were being deleted before I saw them. Using the dollar-sign character, they had written me to say that they had been to some great sale and found widgets for only two-dollars each. Outlook's spam filter for junk mail saw the dollar-sign, thought it was an advertisement, and deleted the email.

To add insult to injury, spammers figure this all out and work around it. They don't use the dollar-sign. If they want to use a word like the "F" word, they just type it as "F***" and the filter misses it. Do you see the problem? Filters mean well, but don't work. The best they are good for is to deliver the email to a temporary folder where you review it to be sure it hasn't dumped any emails you actually want. At that point, you've looked at them all anyway, so you saved nothing!

I can't eliminate these problems for you, but at least you should have a better understanding of what you're up against.

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