Small Business Guide to Dealing With Spam

By Wayne Kawamoto | Posted April 23, 2004

Low-rate loans, fast-and-easy weight loss and get-rich-quick schemes are only a click away in junk e-mails. Even junkier e-mails pester you with offers for cheap Viagra and daily doses of unsolicited, unwanted smutty pictures.

E-mail is a useful tool, providing convenient, low-cost communications for businesses and consumers, but it's being undermined by shady and illegitimate commercial entities that send millions of unwanted junk advertisements, known as "spam," that clog e-mail systems. Unfortunately, the abuse and the problem continue to grow.

A recent InsightExpress survey of 500 small businesses, conducted for Symantec, indicates that spam is an ever-increasing problem for small businesses. About 64 percent reported an increase in the volume of spam during the past six months, with 33 percent noting dramatic increases. Some 40 percent of the businesses said that spam comprised more than half of all incoming e-mail.

The reality is that spam e-mails arrive and company servers have to store them and employees have to delete them. Forty-two percent of the small businesses said that they may abandon e-mail altogether should the situation worsen; 55 percent said that they may be forced to change their company e-mail addresses and 56 percent said that they would consider only accepting messages from pre-approved sources.

Low Cost and Low Response
Unfortunately, sending spam to thousands of e-mail addresses is easy. Since e-mail costs next to nothing to send, even a single sale per hundred-thousand mailings is worth it to unscrupulous vendors. It's also cheap and easy to harvest e-mail addresses by using software to scan web sites. But the cost to business in terms of productivity is significant.

Lawmakers are trying to deal with the problem, but despite recent national and state legislation, many spammers — the companies that distribute spam — are located overseas, effectively out of reach. While major companies such as America Online, EarthLink and Microsoft file lawsuits against spammers, the junk e-mail keeps arriving. For now, small businesses are largely on their own in dealing with the deluge.

In-Box Battles
As in the fight against computer viruses, an entire industry has sprung up to deal with unwanted e-mail. The trick for small businesses is to find a method that requires minimal administration and accurately identifies and removes spam, but doesn't mis-identify legitimate e-mail.

Anti-spam products rely on three techniques to reduce the volume of unwanted e-mail. The most common method involves software and appliances that scan and compare the contents of incoming e-mail (subject, sender and body text) to known spam characteristics and user-defined settings and criteria, and route the spam to a special folder.

One well-known scanner is the Spam Alert feature in Symantec's latest Norton Internet Security and Norton Internet Security Professional Editions. Other scanning solutions include those in McAffee SpamKiller; Stata Labs' Saproxy Pro 2.5, which works with the company's Bloomba e-mail product; MailWasher and others.

Besides scanning, McAffee SpamKiller blocks the addresses of known spammers and creates and manages a list of "friends" so messages from known sources aren't interpreted as spam. MailWasher creates a blacklist to watch for returning e-mail; recognizes friendly e-mail addresses; can refer to external blacklists such as Spam Cop and bounces e-mail back to spammers to make it appear that your e-mail address is invalid. Trend Micro's Spam Prevention Solution, a part of the Trend Micro InterScan Messaging Security Suite, protects an enterprise at the gateway, offers policy-based configuration options and creates "approved sender" lists both at the gateway and mail server.

A second method relies on third-party mail servers that filter e-mail before it reaches a business. These systems create and maintain lists of IP addresses that are known to send spam, and filter e-mail from these sources.

In this category, Cloudmark's SpamNet generates a signature from an incoming message and consults a database to determine if the e-mail is spam. When users encounter new spammers, they may easily add them to the database for future alerts. Nemx's Power Tools for Exchange, which supports Exchange Server, also consults a database of addresses that are known to originate or serve spam and offers scanning functions.

A third method creates a list of approved senders — known as a "whitelist," who are free to send e-mail to your business — and blocks all messages from unapproved sources. Mailblocks, for example, has you create an account and imports e-mail addresses from your existing address. Suspected spam is listed in one place while messages from approved addresses are displayed in another. MailFrontier Enterprise Gateway generates whitelists and relies on some 200,000 rules to detect and block spam.

Simple Steps to Reduce Spam
While software and other systems can reduce the flow of incoming spam, there are steps that everyone can take to discourage and reduce junk e-mails. To start, you can often block spam using the filtering tools in your e-mail client software.

Outlook, for example, offers filtering options in which you can set rules and distribute mail to pre-defined folders. America Online and EarthLink offer similar features to their subscribers. A proactive approach is to forward offending e-mail to your own ISP's abuse desk and the spammer's ISP — the information listed after the "@" sign in the sender's e-mail address.

When you receive spam, simply delete it. Spammers seldom know if the addresses they are harassing are legitimate, because addresses are usually collected from web sites or randomly created. If you vent your anger in a return e-mail, you simply verify your address to spammers who will be happy to send you more messages.

Spam e-mail may offer a way to "opt out" or remove your e-mail address from a list. Unfortunately, this is often a trick used to verify your e-mail address. Of course, you should never purchase anything through a spam ad. If everyone ignored spam, the creators of junk e-mail would have no reason to create and send it in the first place. It's hard to believe that there are people who actually respond to this stuff and perpetuate the problem.

You can minimize spam to a certain degree by not publishing e-mail addresses. If you must post an e-mail address on a Web site, consider altering it so that legitimate users can read and use it, but scanning software can't. For example, if your address is 123@samplesite.com, you may list it on the web site as 123@"samplesite.com" or 123@. You can also list an e-mail address in a JPEG image, which scanning software can't read.

Like unchecked vermin, there is seemingly no end to spam and the companies that produce it. But with the right tools and techniques, we may be able to reduce the volume of spam and ultimately get some work done.

Over the last ten years, Wayne Kawamoto has written over 800 articles, columns, and reviews about computers, new technologies, the Internet, and small businesses. Wayne has alos published three books about upgrading PCs, building office networks, and effectively using and troubleshooting notebook computers. He may be contacted through his Web site at www.waynewrite.com.

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